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.”

Canadians report mixed feelings about working from home – but is it good for the environment? for workers?

The Angus Reid Institute is a Canadian non-profit public opinion research foundation Their recent survey of Covid-related experiences is summarized at their June 11 press release, with the full 11-page report was released under the title  So long, office space? Two-thirds of Canadians who work from home expect it to continue after pandemic  .

Of the 30% of Canadians who have been working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, only 36 % expect to return full-time to their workplace after the pandemic subsides – others expect to split working time between workplace and home, and 20% expect to work primarily from home.  The survey measured productivity and mental health impacts of working from home, showing mixed results re mental health: 15% said it had been “terrible”, 16% said it had been “great”, and 68% ranking it as “okay” – notably, 20% of women 18 to 34 years old rank it as “awful”.  The survey also reports on the job loss experiences of respondents since the March beginning of lockdown, with a high of 31% experiencing job loss in May, and 28% in June. Responses concerning job loss, economic outlook, and incidence and attitudes to government financial assistance are available by age, gender, region, education, and other demographics.

Is working from home good for the planet? or for workers?

An earlier WCR post in May, “Working from home may not save as much energy as we think” summarizes an article from Environmental Research Letters which found little empirical evidence that working from home benefits the environment or climate change. Initially some environmentalists saw a possible (though temporary) upside in a reduction of GHG emissions from commuting, and the concept is being embraced by corporate management – for its own reasons.  The complexity of the issue is discussed in  “Office work will never be the same” in Vox (May 27), which argues that flexibility may benefit the privileged white collar workers who can work from home, but also opens the door to increased workplace surveillance with its greater dependence on technology (not to mention the equity question for those who don’t have the option).   In “Working from Home: Post-Coronavirus Will Give Bosses Greater Control of Workers’ Lives” ( June 4) in Jacobin, author Luke Savage cites examples of Canadian workplace policies from the Bank of Montreal and Shopify, and quotes an unnamed Canadian unionist . Savage concludes with this warning:

“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.”

 

Tips for greening office workplaces in new Guide

green office toolkitThe Canadian Coalition for Green Healthcare, in partnership with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and others,  recently published the  Green Office Toolkit ,  which provides practical tips and examples focused on improving energy and water conservation, handling of toxic materials, and  workplace transportation, as well as the topics of creating, organizing and motivating a workplace “green team”.  Although it is intended for health care clinics and medical offices,  like Confronting Climate Change on Campus , (published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers in 2018),  the Green Office Toolkit  is easily adaptable to other office workplaces beyond the medical office or university setting.

The Guide falls squarely within the interest area of the Canadian Coalition for Green Healthcare , established in 2000, and which is the lead agency managing the Green Hospital Scorecard  program, “ the only comprehensive health care benchmarking tool in Canada measuring energy conservation, water conservation, waste management and recycling, corporate commitment and pollution prevention.” The CCGH publishes an electronic newsletter, Green Digest , with news from Canada and the U.S. , and other resource guides and tools.

One of the other partners in the publication of the Guide is the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment  , best known for its increasing advocacy related to the health impacts of climate change – such as  air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, health effects of wildfires and natural disasters.  The other partner organizations are McMaster University Hospital (Hamilton, Ont.), Women’s College Hospital (Toronto, Ont.) and  Synergie Santé Environnement (Quebec).

More proof that green buildings are better for workers

The health impact of  green workplaces was the subject of a new article,   The Impact of Working in a Green Certified Building on Cognitive Function and Health  , by researchers at the  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Researchers studied 109 workers at 10 buildings and found that employees who worked in certified green buildings had higher cognitive function scores, fewer sick building symptoms and higher sleep quality scores than those working in non-certified buildings.  The research was sponsored by United Technologies.  For an overview of ongoing research at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health , go to its Nature, Health and the Built Environment website . Other related information is available at the World Green Building Council’s “Better Places for People” website .

From a management point of view, an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Air Pollution making office workers less productive”  (September 29) reports on the effect of air pollution on call-center workers at Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency. The authors conclude that these office  workers are 5%–6% more productive when air pollution levels are rated as “good” (an Air Quality Index of 0–50) versus when they are rated as unhealthy (an Air Quality Index of 150–200). Productivity was measured by completed calls each day, length of breaks, and time logged in.

All this points to the importance of green building.  World Green Building Week  began on September 26, 2016 – preceded by an agreement amongst the national green building councils from 10 countries (including Canada)  to adopt zero net carbon certification programs by the end of 2017.  See the World Green Building Council press release for a description of the meetings, including the definition of “zero net carbon” (ZNC)  as advanced by the architectural network, Architecture 2030   .