OHS Canada Magazine

Reviewing unique hazards teleworkers face in winter


Employers should provide resources and avenues that maintain positive mental health within remote workers, especially during the dark winter season. (Photogartner/E+/Getty Images)

It’s been more than a year since the first COVID-19 case was announced and since then, the traditional workplace has changed dramatically with more people working from home and remotely.

According to Statistics Canada, about 40 per cent of Canadians were working from home in the last week of March and according to a recent survey from RBC, by October, more than 2.4 million employees who weren’t normally working from home, were still teleworking — the survey also found that 80 per cent of employees wanted to work from home.

Love it or hate it, working from home has become, as the cliché goes, the “new normal” and with this major shift, employers must address the unique safety hazards and risks that our teleworkers are facing in the home environment, particularly during the cold, Canadian winter months.

Slips, trips, falls

While there are significantly fewer workers travelling to and performing their jobs on external worksites and offices, slips, trips and falls still pose a significant safety threat even when working from home.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says that more than 42,000 workers are injured annually from fall incidents and it will be interesting to see how those statistics are impacted by the growing work-from-home trend.

During winter, teleworkers can experience potentially crippling and even fatal falls when walking on slippery surfaces around the home.

This hazard is slightly different from that of the office because at worksites, snow and ice clearing is usually performed by the company. Working from home, this responsibility lies with the remote worker or owner of the residence.

Like the traditional workplace, mitigate slippery surfaces and walkways in the area by diligently clearing these areas of snow and ice, as well as use sand and salt if needed. Additionally, wear the proper footwear that provide grip on these dangerous surfaces — workers can also use rubber over-shoes which can easily be fit over your existing footwear.

What’s relatively unknown is that people working from home are considered lone workers as they technically work alone and cannot be seen or heard by other people. As a result, you may need to update or modify your lone worker safety policy to protect your people and company.

Prepare for Mother Nature

Canadian winters are known for their volatility and intensity with deadly cold temperatures and traffic-stopping snowfalls and blizzards.

Already this year, Canada experienced some of its coldest temperatures in history, reminding us that workers need to be prepared for cold weather wherever they may be working.

It is commonly assumed that workers are safe and secure within the walls of their work-from-home space. However, they are not immune to extreme weather and can take proactive steps to increase their safety.

An automated worker monitoring system is a reliable and easy tool that employees can use to check in with their employer confirming their safety and well-being.

Additionally, employers should provide an emergency kit for their at-home workers in case they are snow-trapped at home possibly without necessities like electricity and water.

The basics of this kit should include:

  • non-perishable items like canned food, energy bars and dried foods with utensils and can opener
  • water — each person in the household should have two litres of water per day, alongside water for cooking and cleaning
  • a flashlight with extra batteries
  • first-aid kit
  • basic tools like a screwdriver, hammer and scissors
  • sleeping bag, blankets and warm clothing
  • candles with matches and a lighter
  • toiletries like extra toilet paper, toothbrushes and hand sanitizer
  • specialty items like prescription medications and baby formula.

Make mental health a priority

One of the most significant safety and health hazards of working from home has been the major toll on the mental health of teleworkers.

A Morneau Shepell report in December found that the Mental Health Index for working Canadians dipped to a record low in December and 36 per cent of survey respondents said they were concerned about a co-worker’s mental health.

It is imperative that employers provide resources and avenues that maintain positive mental health within remote workers, especially during the dark winter season when loneliness and stress can be major issues.

These include extended benefits for psychological services as well as resources for physical health like online work-out classes or new runners which can really strengthen emotional health.

But to truly make an impact on their team during the winter, employers need to facilitate connection and communication amongst the remote team, creating a positive work culture where workers are appreciated and recognized for good work and feel safe and comfortable to talk about any internal issues they may be experiencing.

Genuine, regular engagement and communication is essential to any successful remote team, but it is even more important as we weather (pun intended) the Canadian winter.

Gen Handley is a marketing and growth co-ordinator with Tsunami Solutions in Vancouver.