Overworking From Home: Risks Overlooked

Stress causes deterioration in everything from your gums to your heart and can make you more susceptible to illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer. Image (Image credit: Dreamstime.com)

Working from home has its advantages. No need to shower, shave or even dress; traffic jams are minimized to dodging laundry in the hallway; and then there's the Judge Judy break at four.

Yet with such fringe benefits come disadvantages and dangers few employers are taking seriously and few employees understand, such as the stress of working daylong in front of a computer in what could be an ergonomically undesirable setting, injuries from household hazards, expectations of being available around the clock, or working alone without colleague interaction and, dare we imagine, without computer tech support.

Traditional workplaces are constructed with federal regulation and best-business practices in mind. Yet while high fuel prices and fist-clenching traffic are forcing more people to work from home, no rules exist on how to properly create a home office.

Real risks

Thousands of fires each year begin in the home office for a variety of reasons, according to data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System. A primary cause is overtaxed electrical systems, as telecommuters jam the electrical chords for fax, printer, computer, lamp and space heater into a single socket. If Christmas tree lights can cause a short, imagine what office equipment can do.

In a traditional work setting most office workers have adequate lighting, ergonomically sound desks and keyboard rests, and comfortable, adjustable chairs. At home, many workers might toil away at the kitchen table or on a sofa, which might seem comfortable at first but could lead to eyestrain and musculoskeletal discomfort.

Many at home tend to skip breaks, too. You don't have the visual or auditory clues to take a break, such as a stupid water cooler conversation about how the Detroit Lions still have a chance for the playoffs if a pandemic flu wipes out most of the league — one of those conversations you need to end immediately.

Radon, concentrated in poorly ventilated basements, might not be a concern for the few minutes that one is doing laundry or other chores, but it becomes a cancer risk after eight-hour days in a basement office. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, claiming 21,000 lives each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

I work, ergo ergonomics

The Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration had issued a comprehensive ergonomics program standard that became effective on Jan. 16, 2001, which would have begun to address telecommuting issues. But President Bush signed a resolution to rescind the rule two months later, one of his first acts in office.

Little research is available on telecommuting hazards, and most of this is authored by industry, such as a study published in the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses journal in 2000 that found the telecommuters report high levels of job satisfaction but low knowledge of ergonomic and safety concepts. A 2004 report of telecommuters in the Journal of Safety Research found that 85 percent of the participants had not received teleworker training and 44 percent had experienced pain or discomfort while teleworking.

The true number of home injuries is a bit of a mystery, because people are reluctant to publicly report injuries for fear of losing their teleworker privileges. And it is difficult to discern from injury claims where the injury occurred, at work or at home.

The Boss-Man profits ...

The telecommuter must speak up. There is a societal perception that working from home is always a benefit and that asking the boss for something more, such as office equipment, is tantamount to asking too much. Yet employers have much to gain from the deal and, in fact, many are asking employees to stay home.

Companies see telecommuting as a way to save money on office space; and nearly half of the 1,400 CFOs surveyed by the consulting firm Robert Half International said that telecommuting is second only to salary as the best way to attract top talent. The smart company will make telecommuting work.

OSHA has advice posted online. It will be up to the Obama administration to reinstate OSHA guidelines.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.