The Alternative Work Force: Safety Challenges When Employees Work Remotely

With more employees than ever on the road or working from home, safety managers need to ensure that their companies have a strategy for ensuring the safety and health of this new breed of employee.

It is estimated that between 30 and 40 million people in the United States are now either telecommuters or home-based employees. Sales and service personnel, working in primarily non-supervised situations, also constitute a large percentage of our work force.

The growing trend toward building an alternative workplace, including various combinations of non-traditional work settings, practices and locations, is accompanied by some unique management challenges for safety, health and environmental excellence. Safety professionals require skills to help prevent accidents and incidents in these situations. At the same time, alternative employees require personal or self-management skills to help them take responsibility for SH&E performance.

Pharmaceutical companies, for example, employ thousands of sales and detail people who travel alone to physicians' offices, pharmacies, supermarkets and the like. Machinery and parts manufacturers, computer hardware and software manufacturers and many other companies that supply an intermediary manufacturer or the end-user have scores of mechanics and service personnel who travel and work in unfamiliar environments. This poses an ongoing challenge for their safety, health and well-being.

Airports, train stations and hotels now have mobile workstations with Internet access, supplies and overnight delivery services to aide "on-the-road" personnel. As more companies adopt these practices, the number of employees working in non-traditional settings will continue to grow.

Many people have downsized from more to less expensive office environments and more comfortable home office environments. As the electronic age has evolved, the need to be in or near a central office location has become less necessary. Many people have eliminated their urban or suburban home and are working from their former vacation home in the country or near a body of water.

A Win-Win

Key organizational objectives to increase productivity and profitability, especially with global competition and downturns in the economy, have facilitated this trend. Working from home for many serves dual purposes. First, it offers the business advantage of minimizing the need for expensive office space and related overhead. Second, it benefits the individuals who spend less time and money commuting, more time producing results and revenues and, when not traveling, more time with their families. Technology greatly facilitates these alternative arrangements.

Companies also are seeking new ways to attract and keep full- or part-time, talented, motivated employees who require alternative sites. A Florida-based medical transcriptions company employs more than 650 people who work from home or travel to various hospitals to provide their services. And when you dial an 800 number for a credit card company, or some other service organization, you never know where the person you are speaking with resides.

Tools Required

To improve the chances of an alternative workplace program's success, everyone involved must be armed with needed tools and have relevant training and strong administrative support. Without proper safety training and ongoing communication with these employees, the initiative may result in accidents, incidents and injuries. Given the independent nature of remote employees, personal responsibility must be taken, and self-observation and self-management skills are required.

The transition creates a new set of challenges for maintaining and improving SH&E performance. Some experts assert that although there have not been many lawsuits related to this work group, companies are responsible for employees in designated work areas in alternative locations. Many telecommuters have no experience in traditional office environments, while others are accustomed to working in a structured office setting and complying with the requirements of office life. What is required to be safe in an alternative work situation may be unknown or ignored for many and, unless addressed properly, could result in incidents.

OSHA's Position

OSHA attempted to clarify its position on employer responsibility for distance employees in a controversial 1999 response to an employer question. The response stated in part: "The OSH Act applies to work performed by an employee in any workplace within the United States, including a workplace located in the employee's home. All employers, including those which have entered into 'work at home' agreements with employees, are responsible for complying with the OSH Act and with safety and health standards."

An outcry from employers, and from some members of Congress, led the agency to re-clarify its position. In a subsequent letter to a congressional committee, the agency stated, "We believe the OSH Act does not apply to an employee's house or furnishings. OSHA will not hold employers liable for work activities in employees' home offices. OSHA does not expect employers to inspect home offices. OSHA does not, and will not, inspect home offices."

The Society for Human Resource Management asserts, though, that if someone gets injured in a home office conducting work for their company that is arranged and approved by the company, the individual is covered legally and the company is liable the same way as if they were working in the main office.

In one case, an employee working from home was heading to the mailbox to retrieve a document that had been delivered to him. He slipped on icy pavement and was injured. This was determined to be work- related and he won a liability suit from his company.

Though not mandated by OSHA at this point, many companies are taking on this issue in a serious way, challenging the privacy rights of the individual with the protective rights of the company for the employee and themselves. Some companies only permit an employee to work at home once the workspace has been inspected by a company representative. Merrill Lynch has published requirements for home safety and requires compliance. Some companies have set up guidelines, but do not insist on inspecting the home.

The bottom line is that it is basically up to an individual business to decide what it will do to ensure home or remote employees' safety, health and well-being. Issues include requiring and providing necessary equipment, proper ergonomic workstation design and safety training. Many companies provide defensive driving training for their employees who drive for business purposes. A rule of thumb has been that the same situations, guidelines and liabilities that exist for office employees apply to home and remote employees. Many receive the same training as onsite employees, especially for service and maintenance employees. This may include the kind of chair and computer they use, ergonomically designed workstations, proper use of step ladders, storage and access to materials, electrical wiring and trip prevention.

A food process machinery manufacturer had us provide our awareness-based, attitudinal and behavioral incident prevention program for service reps who traveled extensively. Since a concern of these employees was for their families while they were away, the company had us include their spouses in the program where we addressed safety at home as well. The commitment was to ensure the safety of these valuable employees and their families wherever they were.

Remote Management

Managers and supervisors, who lose their visual and verbal proximity to their direct reports, have to change the way they relate to and manage those employees. An important question is, "What can a manager or supervisor do to ensure the safety of his or her remote work force regardless of their location and work environments?" Another key issue is whether or not home and remote safety methods and techniques are part of their conversations with these employees, and whether any training occurs.

A key strategy for corporate executives is to make safety, health and environmental performance standards clear. They must establish objectives and accountabilities with business unit and site leadership to ensure the safety of alternative workplace employees.

Raising Awareness

To prevent accidents among off-site personnel, these employees need to be in sync with company goals and requirements for safety, health and environmental excellence. Managers and supervisors need special skills in communication and coaching and counseling to manage remote employees.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review titled, "The Alternative Workplace: Changing Where and How People Work," author Mahlon Apgar IV discusses challenges faced by those who have implemented such changes. While adequate communications and other work-related technology cannot be underestimated, effective management proved the toughest challenge. Apgar says middle managers who lose proximity and control of their direct reports are among those who must make the most dramatic changes in the way they relate to these employees.

New ways to assure clarity of performance expectations and measurement are among strategies to manage distance employees. Leadership also must find ways to address the causes of unsafe or risky behaviors, despite employee knowledge of what is expected.

When people are working independently or with personnel from other companies (driving vehicles on sales or service calls, doing repairs, handling outages for utilities, etc.), they face a unique set of safety challenges. Often, they are working in unfamiliar areas with variable weather conditions. They also are affected by their own beliefs, problems, state of mind, health, substance use and fatigue, as well as by these factors influencing those they work for or with. The safety of their equipment or vehicles also plays a part in their ability to be safe.

Self-Supervision

Remote employees often lack immediate supervision, leaving no one to watch over them but themselves. History has shown us that some of the most serious incidents befall long-term, highly trained, capable employees. It appears that familiarity with one's job and its related hazards breeds complacency in many, promulgating the belief that "I've done this job or task over and over and nothing will happen to me." Having gotten away with a shortcut or bypassing a procedure many times over, the most experienced people often take the greatest risks.

Experienced or inexperienced employees need to become aware of the underlying "human mechanisms" that cause them to place themselves and others at risk. And they must be taught how to manage these mechanisms.

Our work leads us to conclude that the most common causes of incidents are:

  • Complacency
  • Inattention, distractions and loss of focus
  • Stress
  • Unsafe attitudes, beliefs and subsequent behaviors
  • Resistance to following rules and procedures and related non-compliance
  • Lack of personal responsibility for one's own and others' safe behaviors
  • Failure to heed early warning signs of potential danger
  • Improper (including vehicle) equipment or lack of preventative maintenance
  • Road rage and distractions, including those from cell phones
  • Poor time management skills
  • Failure to ensure co-worker safety
  • Failure to heed railroad crossings

Key questions that can help ensure the safety of this group of employees include:

1. What are the unique challenges to maintaining the safety, health and well-being of a remote work force?
2. What are the safety-related responsibilities of the company and of the remote worker?
3. What self-observation and self-management skills do these employees require?
4. What leadership and management skills are needed?
5. What communication skills are necessary for managing remotely?
6. What is the importance of enhanced listening skills to determine if a person is truly committed to following necessary and required safety procedures?

Some businesses operate a "telecommuting lab" to acclimate candidates before they formally adopt the new style of working. During that time, they work in a simulated home office at work and communicate with their managers, fellow employees and customers solely via phone and e-mail, giving the individual and the company an opportunity to assess the fit of the telecommuting arrangement and how people will work before beginning work.

Employees at all levels must recognize their accountability for the well-being of others, even those they cannot or do not see regularly. Management must establish policies and choose actions that demonstrate a particular understanding of and concern for these employees and ensure that employee safety and health are key values and priorities, regardless of where employees spend their days. This demonstrates to employees that management cares about them, a sentiment whose importance cannot be overvalued.

Getting to 'Why'

Although people do not want to get hurt, they sometimes deliberately or accidentally behave in an unsafe manner that can result in an injury or incident. Personal and business concerns can be potentially dangerous distractions. The root causes of most unsafe behaviors are typically a loss of focus or attention, or counterproductive attitudes, beliefs and values. Employees may develop a false sense of security regarding their ability to control circumstances or protect themselves because they have never been hurt doing things in an unsafe way.

As incidents or injuries can result from an employee's awareness, attitude and behaviors, they also can result from those of others. Many experts claim that accidents and injuries result from unsafe acts, and from failure to perform timely maintenance and repairs on equipment and vehicles. Both are true.

Two types of incident-causing events typically occur. Employees easily can become unconscious and unaware due to daydreaming, inattention, repetitive tasks, stress and various distractions. Preoccupation with organizational changes such as production pressures, downsizing and job security, as well as global and political issues, can cause a loss of focus and possible injury. The other cause is conscious or premeditated behaviors, when, for example, a employee talks him or herself into taking shortcuts, not following protocols and refusing to wear PPE. These premeditated behaviors tend to be supported by rationalizations and justifications including time, comfort and convenience.

When meeting contractual agreements or earning a bonus for meeting sales quotas, or for achieving other defined results, overt and covert messages from oneself and others to get work completed quickly can result in shortcuts and bypassed procedures. These rule violations may go unaddressed by supervisors, especially when their own compensation and advancement are affected. The scenario is even more likely when an employee is not within a supervisor's vision.

What's more, traditional means of formal or informal observations cannot ensure that employees are performing activities that contribute to the prevention of accidents. Being out of sight can foster a level of complacency for the remote manager to overlook or ignore necessary safety precautions. For continual improvement, constant attention and energy must be applied to safety, health and environmental performance.

Changing Attitudes and Beliefs

It is possible to prevent incidents in any type of work setting. The key, we have learned, is to change behaviors by addressing awareness, attitudes, beliefs and counterproductive circumstances.

Wherever employees work, leaders need to identify and address the negative influences that shape employee attitudes and behaviors. And they must assure that adequate resources for essential training and protective equipment are allocated to deliver a good return-on-investment. Defining and tirelessly communicating orally and in writing a commitment to safety, health and environmental excellence can help establish it as an esteemed value. The attitudes and values of employees at all levels must be examined and measured against the vision for the organization.

Where there is a lack of awareness, understanding or agreement, clarify expectations. A core expectation should be that all personnel exhibit responsibility for their own safety and health, and for the protection of co-workers, customers family members, the company, the community and the environment.

All Levels, All People

To create breakthroughs in performance requires a holistic approach that emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility for one's own safety and the safety of others. That includes all levels of employees, management and line or labor, in all work settings. All employees need to be willing and able to take actions to protect themselves in every situation, including at home or in the field. The organizational levels involved in a successful improvement process are:

The self-management level. Every employee needs the skills to observe and manage his or her own attitudes, thinking and behaviors at work and at home, regardless of whether they work in a traditional or non-traditional workplace.

The peer/team support level. Employees should be able to demonstrate that they are responsible for, and care about, fellow employees. This is especially true when others are working in areas that are not in visual proximity to that person. Interpersonal and teamwork skills are key.

The leadership level, managers, supervisors and labor leaders. Leaders should be able (and required) to put aside political and business issues to create and maintain an environment where everyone can work together safely, regardless of the location or other variable circumstances.

The organizational level. The organizational culture reflects and maintains the norms, values, beliefs, attitudes and commitments of the company. These must reflect that safety, health and environmental excellence are core values that are openly encouraged and supported.

Employee Involvement

Total employee involvement is the most effective way to produce and accelerate positive improvement in your safety, health and environmental process. Use the knowledge and experience of your employees to determine the best ways to ensure safe work practices. It is one of the best investments of time and money, and can pay off both in injury prevention and cost reduction. Include the remote employee in determining what is needed to prevent themselves and others from being injured regardless of where they are at home, on the road or in a customer or client workplace.

When one is internally motivated by a perception of the value of working safely, the willingness to participate is greater and behavioral changes tend to be longer lasting. External motivation is most effective when combined with internal motivation. Safety leaders should use coaching and counseling techniques in person, by phone or by e-mail to constructively safeguard distance employees.

This applies especially during times of organizational change. Leadership must reiterate the message that all employees must comply with safety, health and environmental rules. Direct and indirect costs resulting from injuries and incidents and regulatory fines can financially push a company over the edge or seriously impair its viability. Whether or not OSHA takes further action on the issue of home-worker enforcement, the motivation to take constructive action must remain strong. It reflects appropriate concern for employees and their loved ones, and concern for the company.

Distance employees can best protect themselves by picturing themselves as their own safety manager or director. They should be empowered to proactively identify and solve problems. Concerned and caring managers should encourage employees to participate, reinforcing the importance of self-observation and proactivity, especially when employees are on their own. Systems that invite participation, even remotely, must be developed and maintained. Effective communication between the alternative employee and the home office and supervisors is essential.

Contributing Editor Michael Topf, MA, is president of Topf LLC, a company providing leading-edge culture change and awareness, and attitudinal and behavioral improvement processes for safety, health and environmental incident prevention. He can be reached at (610) 688-1620 or at www.TopfOrg.com.

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