Start-ups with home-based staff have been handed a stark warning after Telstra was forced to pay legal and medical costs for an employee who suffered work-related injuries while at home.
Telstra employee Dale Hargreaves took legal action against the company after she slipped down the stairs twice in two months while working on Telstra marketing campaigns from her Brisbane home.
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Telstra denied liability because the falls occurred away from Hargreaves’ designated workstation, but the tribunal found the injuries she suffered were work-related. Telstra will also have to pay compensation for lost income.
The first fall occurred in August 2006 when Hargreaves was going to get cough medicine from the fridge in sock-clad feet.
The second incident occurred later that year when she was locking the front door in line with Telstra’s instructions following a break-in at her home.
The tribunal found both falls “arose out of Ms Hargreaves’ employment with Telstra”, which made them workplace injuries.
Legal experts say the ruling could force employers to conduct workplace health and safety audits at the houses of their home-based employees.
According to the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, such a move would be “a bad outcome for everyone concerned”.
“An employer has no capacity whatsoever to determine and influence workplace health and safety arrangements at a person’s home office,” QCCI policy manager Nick Behrens says.
“What the ruling essentially does is significantly discourage an employer providing workplace flexibility. It could be a catalyst for a significant change in employer behaviour.”
David Miller, industrial law specialist at Australian Industry Group, says working from home creates additional problems for the relationship between the home-based employee and their employer.
“The line between what you do as domestic activity and what is work related gets very blurred… You start to be a bit concerned as to where one set of liabilities stops and the other starts – it becomes difficult,” Miller says.
“That does impose problems but the whole rationale of this is that an employer, in sending an employee off out somewhere, is presumably doing it to assist them in running their business and making a profit for the business.
“It is therefore not unreasonable that the employer should maintain some responsibility for what happens.”
According to Miller, employees should carry out health and safety checks in the homes of every home-based employee.
“If you are going to have people working from home on a regular basis – and plainly there is a benefit in doing that – you’ve got to come round to the home and do your investigation and your site safety report in just the same way as you would in your office,” he says.
“You have to make sure that all the apparatus someone uses to assist in their job is fixed up and checked out in just the same way as it would be [in an office].”
Miller says while the Hargreaves case sends a strong message to employers, it is also an extreme example.
“One shouldn’t be mesmerised by difficult or awkward cases… I’d be loath to say that this was a kind of precedent that was set forever more,” he says.
“It’s just a working example of a situation where that nebulous boundary between ‘Is it your responsibility or mine?’ is hard to find.”