The absentee office

Today's mobile workers encounter unique health concerns

Darwin (6/17/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Welcome to the new office - on the road, or at home - where telecommuters and employers alike learn that freedom from the traditional four walls comes with a bevy of potential health risks. '

Feature article:

Out of sight, out of mind? Not a wise approach for company managers with employees working on the road, or from home. While great strides have been made in creating a safer office environment – from ergonomically correct chairs and keyboards to diffused lighting and eye-friendly computer monitors - the trend toward four-wheeled and home offices is offering a whole new frontier for workplace injury and ailment.

“Office is a kind of loose term these days,” says Wayne Maynard, product director/ergonomics for Liberty Mutual Insurance’s research center in Massachusetts. “We have offices in vehicles, we have telecommuters. People don’t have to be in a cubicle or in one place to do business anymore. And we’re also talking about different types of hazards – cellular phones, digital wireless technology, laptop computers. You hear of people working on computers while they’re driving. A salesman, or road warrior, can do an entire day’s work, literally, while driving from client to client.”

In this brave new world of high-tech communications, companies large and small are eager to take advantage of the flexibility provided by new equipment, such as e-mail pagers, that allow employees more freedom to be more productive. The changes have occurred so quickly that insurance companies like Liberty Mutual are struggling to identify which employees fall into that segment of the workforce.

“We have a new phenomenon here," says Maynard. "How can businesses manage the safety of people they don’t see everyday?"

The challenge for companies is to recognize new hazards, enhance safety programs to include off-site employees, budget for safety accessories, and develop strategies to make sure employees are working safely and using the equipment provided. "What's new is the technology, technology that takes you away from the office and puts you anywhere in the world,” says Maynard. “That’s going to continue to develop. And it’s going to make managing safety, and managing risk, and assessing risk, more difficult. You can assess it, but what you’re really looking at is changing behavior, and that’s really tough to do."

But a company's obligation to ensure safety remains. Short of home-office inspections, managers must now consider a variety of "assessment tools" to help satellite employees create a safer work environment, from web sites providing self-assessment questionnaires and guidelines to training programs, such as videos.

“It’s an entirely new ballgame when it comes to managing safety of these people because you’re not always able to see their work place,” Maynard says, adding many high-tech companies have employees working at a client’s offices. “Their workstations are actually at the client’s work site. It’s not at a company-owned worksite. That’s becoming more and more common.”

Which brings up the legal ramifications - companies are still responsible for employee safety while on the job. Officials with the federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) raised eyebrows earlier this year when, asked for a ruling by a Texas credit company, determined that organizations are liable for their at-home workforce. However, OSHA officials have since revised that ruling and adopted a formal policy that they won’t inspect individual homes. And since worker’s compensation claims fall under state guidelines, managers must be aware of the laws in each state where they have people working.

“It’s a very complicated problem,” says Maynard.

For information on ergonomics, whether in the traditional office, on the road or at home, contact the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at 1-800-35-NIOSH, or visit the OSHA web site at

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