Working from home: health and safety concerns but no clear environmental benefit

Working from home has become a necessity for many during the pandemic, and the popular press has documented many examples of the trend  – recently, for example “Twitter’s plans to work from home indefinitely have prompted a wave of copycats.” (Washington Post , October 1) . It is a complex issue which raises questions about the climate change potential of a permanent shift in working arrangements for knowledge workers, as well as the equity impacts and the health and safety impacts .

Researchers study the complexities and trade-offs, find little improvement in GHG’s

An October article by engineering professors O’Brien and Yazdani Aliabadi of Carleton University in Ottawa updates the state of research about:  “Does telecommuting save energy? A critical review of quantitative studies and their research methods” (published in Energy and Buildings in October) .The authors consider the complexity of simultaneous analysis of “home office energy use, the Internet, long-term consumer choices, and other so-called rebound effects” on GHG emissions.  They conclude that: “current datasets and methods are generally inadequate for fully answering the research question. While most studies indicate some benefit, several suggest teleworking increases energy use – even for the domain that is thought to benefit most: transportation.” The authors point to the need for future research which considers the impact of energy-saving trends already under way, including urban design, building energy efficiency,  and electric vehicles for community.

Unions see workplace impacts, including lack of health and safety protections

In July, Canada’s National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) published Working from Home: Considerations for Unions, a 23-page overview to make unions aware of the important issues, including climate change impacts: using these headings: Use of technology ; Impacts on productivity ; Work-life balance ; Accessibility and equity ; Cost savings ; Environmental impact ; Health and safety ; Worker and community solidarity. The report, which uses the acronym “WFH” throughout, includes a useful bibliography of Canadian-focused articles. In October, NUPGE followed up with a detailed report,  Workers’ Health and Safety Protections and Working from Home , which “ considers how OHS and Workers’ Compensation (WC) laws apply to WFH and identifies potential legal gaps. By surveying Canadian legislation, case law, government guidelines, and analogous examples, this paper seeks to help workers and unions identify potential areas of concern for workers’ health and safety protection in WFH arrangements.”  It highlights the situation in Ontario, where section 3(1) of the  Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) specifically excludes telework, and contrasts Ontario with British Columbia, which offers more protection in its Workers’ Compensation Act by  defining “workplace” broadly,  as “any place where a worker is or is likely to be engaged in any work and include[s] any vessel, vehicle or mobile equipment used by a worker in work.”  NUPGE’s report also includes a thorough bibliography, and concludes by referring to the recommendations of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety online Fact Sheet, which recommends “the employer and the teleworker should have a written agreement to avoid complications, to ensure that both parties know who is responsible for what, and to ensure that the worker’s health and safety protections are not reduced.”

Another union-led discussion of this issue appeared on October 1, when the International Trade Union Confederation  (ITUC) published a Legal Guide to Telework which briefly outlines the threats, and states: “To guarantee that such arrangements reconcile the need for flexibility (for both workers and employers) and safeguarding of labour rights and protections, the introduction and implementation of teleworking arrangements should be accompanied by key principles outlined in this discussion guide.” Regulation and collective bargaining protections are seen as key. Specifically, the Guide calls for voluntary arrangements for employees, with an option of a physical space for workers who prefer it; regulation of working hours and  the “right to disconnect” (already legislated in France and Italy) ; work equipment and costs should be the responsibility of the employer; safeguards for worker privacy; and respect for the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining for teleworkers.

Related articles: Work and Climate Change Report previously reported on articles related to the workers’ perspective in “Canadians report mixed feelings about working from home – but is it good for the environment? for workers?” . Tanguay and Lachapelle from Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) provide the Canadian context using data from the 2017 Statistics Canada General Social Survey in “Remote work worsens inequality by mostly helping high-income earners”  (The Conversation, May 10 ), and a U.S. update appears in  “Telework mostly benefits white, affluent Americans – and offers few climate benefits”  ( The Conversation, July 2020) .   In  Working from Home: Post-Coronavirus Will Give Bosses Greater Control of Workers’ Lives ( Jacobin,  June 4) author Luke Savage cites examples of Canadian workplace policies from the Bank of Montreal and Shopify, and sums up the dangers of a permanent shift to working from home:   “With every home an office and every office a home, the residual boundaries between work and private life will be gone for good. Still worse, the whole or even partial demise of the physical office space could become a catalyst for a deeper precarization of work wherein many workers are effectively remote contractors, their homes operating like quasi-franchises over which employers can exercise discretionary control with minimal restriction…. Socialists have long argued that bosses and markets exert far too much power and control over our time, our private lives, and our individual autonomy. Unless we resist the burgeoning shift to remote work, both are about to devour an even bigger share of all three.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s