Even before COVID-19 found its way into our life earlier this year, the number of workers working from home was steadily on the increase.
Enabling workers to work from home comes with its own set of inherent risks for both the worker and the employer. Working from home creates an additional place of employment in which the employer must take steps to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of their workers.
Injuries can and do occur while working from home just like they do when working in a more traditional place of employment such as an office, shop or warehouse. When an injury occurs while a Queensland worker is working from home, they are entitled to lodge an application for statutory compensation, regardless of fault.
While the court decisions discussed below relate to other jurisdictions, they are valid examples of the likely scope of acceptance of work from home injuries that occur in Queensland.
Work-related activities performed outside normal work hours
In Ledwidge and Optus Administration Pty Ltd  AATA 58, the worker (Mr Ledwidge) was employed by Optus as a field service technician. He was supplied with a van by his employer and his normal working hours were 7:30am to 3:30pm Monday to Friday. On Sunday 8 January 2006, Mr Ledwidge injured his back whilst tidying and organising the interior of his van for the coming week.
The Commonwealth Government Administrative Appeals Tribunal ('Tribunal') held that Mr Ledwidge's injury arose out of, or in the course of his employment because at the time of the incident he was “engaging in an activity he was 'reasonably expected' to do in relation to his employment, namely organise his van so that he could work efficiently.” While Optus did not require their workers to clean their vans outside of work hours, team leaders were aware that workers were doing so and in fact it was an encouraged practice. Optus gave no directive to its workers not to clean their vans on the weekend.
Absence from workstation for necessity and complying with employer request
In Hargreaves and Telstra  AATA 417, the worker (Ms Hargreaves) suffered physical injury on two separate occasions in 2006 whilst working from home for Telstra. On both occasions, she had logged into Telstra's computer system prior to the incidents occurring. On the first occasion, Ms Hargreaves had gotten up from her workstation to go downstairs to take cough medicine. She fell down the stairs and injured her left shoulder. On the second occasion, Ms Hargreaves had gotten up from her workstation to go downstairs to make sure her front door was locked after her son had left for school. Again, she fell down the stairs and injured her left shoulder.
The Tribunal held that Ms Hargreaves' injuries were sustained in the course of her employment. In regards to the first incident, the Tribunal considered the action of going to take medicine constituted “a need for an absence from her workstation for the necessities of nature such as a toilet break or a meal break”. In regards to the second incident, the Tribunal found that Ms Hargreaves was complying with an instruction from her employer to keep the door locked during the day when she was working from home. The requirement from her employer became part of her employment obligations and fell within the scope of her employment.
Not an ordinary break from work
In Demasi and Comcare  AATA 644, the worker (Ms Demasi) suffered physical injury on 14 January 2014 while working from home as a producer and presenter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Ms Demasi commenced work at 7:30am that day and was scheduled to conduct a phone interview at 9:30am. When Ms Demasi called to conduct the interview, the interviewee had forgotten about the interview and asked Ms Demasi to push the start time back to 10:30am. Ms Demasi then decided to take an early break and go for a run prior to the rescheduled interview time. During the run, Ms Demasi tripped and fell awkwardly, suffering a broken hip.
The Tribunal refused acceptance of Ms Demasi's claim on the grounds that her injury was not sustained during an ordinary recess in the course of her employment. In reaching the decision, the Tribunal distinguished between going for a run during a lunch break and going for a run at an ad hoc, random time of the day. The Tribunal concluded that going for a run at any random time of the day was considered to be “not a recess….much less an 'ordinary' one”.
How a claim for a work from home injury will be determined
It is acknowledged that the above court decisions were handed down some years ago, however they still stand as precedent for how work from home injury claims are determined. Only a small handful of court decisions exist in relation to such claims because most issues in dispute with work from home injuries are resolved informally between the worker, employer and the Insurer.
The test applied by the Tribunal in the above decisions is very similar to the test used in Queensland set out under section 34 of the Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (the Act). The test is whether the injury arose out of, or in the course of, the worker's employment either:
- while the worker is at the place of employment (designated work area of the home) and is engaged in an activity for, or in connection with, the employer's trade or business; or
- while the worker is temporarily absent from the place of employment (designed work areas in the home) during an ordinary recess if the event is not due to the worker voluntarily subjecting themselves to an abnormal risk of injury during the recess.
It is also important to remember that work from home injuries are not limited to physical injuries. It's possible for a worker to suffer a psychological injury while working from home. It is vital that employers consider both the worker's physical and psychological safety when reaching a work from home agreement.
A Queensland worker who has suffered an injury while working from home may lodge a claim for damages at common law pursuant to the Act. As with any common law claim, in order for damages to be awarded, the worker will need to establish, on the balance of probabilities, that the employer breached a duty of care owed to the worker, and that the negligence of breaching that duty of care caused the actual injury to occur.
Workplace health and safety obligations
Please see Workplace Health and Safety's guide for practical information regarding how to manage risk when workers are working from home.
Contact WorkCover Queensland if you have any questions relating to a work from home injury claim.