Safety and Health Benefits of Telecommuting

Rick Johnson

Presently, as a condition of our employment, many of us are required to commute (by car, bike, walking, etc.) back and forth to work. So thinking about worker and public safety and health should also involve thinking about our employer's requirement that we get back and forth to work.

Because we are searching for hazards related to our work activities, and steps we can take to reduce those hazards, we should determine whether or not *all* commutes to and from work are really necessary. **Every unnecessary commute poses an unnecessary hazard**. It poses a hazard not only to those who are driving to work, when they don't really need to, but also to others on the road, who must commute to work and have to deal with unnecessary traffic. Additionally, our health is affected in many adverse ways by our artificial requirement to commute to work and other activities that can now so easily be performed from the comfort and safety of our homes.

Since 1989 I have advocated telecommuting (working from home instead of driving back and forth to my employer's worksite to accomplish work) as an official employee work option. Telecommuting conserves energy, preserves our environment, promotes family values, and enhances worker safety. (For more information see an earlier article I wrote when I worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory on the benefits of telecommuting.)

Worker safety and health has been of increasing importance to many government agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), over the last several years. The DOE knows that most of the harm done to its workers comes from commonplace accidents, like trips and falls, chemical spills, and electrical shocks. To get us to think about safety, the DOE developed some interesting programs over the last few years, including the "Integrated Safety Management" and "Work Smart" approaches. Both of these approaches are based on the practical idea that each individual worker knows best what hazards exist around him/her. To keep from being harmed or harming others by their specific work-related hazards workers only need to do their jobs according to certain recognized standards of performance. When you know what the hazards are around you (just look around and think about them for a minute) it's pretty easy to decide what you need to do to keep from getting hurt. And if you don't know, then all you need to do is ask. That's not very hard. Most of us just need a little reminder, now and then, to make sure we keep *thinking about safety*.

As an absolute condition of your employment many of you are currently required to commute to work on site at your employer's work location to accomplish your job, unless your manager approves otherwise (e.g. for travel, change-of-station, permanent off-site duty, etc.).

Many of you are doing work that requires that you be on site to be really effective. For example, if you unload a delivery truck, install wiring, deliver the mail between offices, or perform experiments or other operations that require close monitoring, you may (currently) need to be at your worksite in order to get your work done right. Others are doing work, though, that doesn't necessarily require that you be on site in order to be productive. How can this be?

Most of you know there have been *major* improvements in computers, telephone communications, and remote Internet access over the last few years, and as a result of these improvements, much of your employer's work can be done very effectively outside of the actual worksite boundaries. For example, a person doing calculations of beam stresses and strains, a person editing a report, a person answering phone calls and processing email, a person performing scientific research, and a person developing computer codes can do this type of work just about anywhere. They don't necessarily *have* to be physically in an office at the employer's official worksite. They could just as well be in their home office or a telecommuting "center" closer to their home.

So by now you're probably asking, "what does telecommuting have to do with worker and public safety, anyway?"

With some minor modifications to the present Administrative Policy of your employer, your management could easily set up a program to encourage certain qualified employees to perform work from their home workstations. By providing a telecommuting work option, your management would reduce the risk to all its workers associated with unnecessary commutes and unnecessary traffic. This action would show that your employer is an innovator with regard to worker and public safety and health. It would demonstrate that they continuously look for all hazards associated with your employment, that they try to encourage their workforce to "work smart" to reduce those hazards, and that we acknowledge and work by the principles of "integrated safety management."

Approximately 40,000 to 50,000 people die in traffic accidents each year in the United States and many more worldwide. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are injured as a result of automobile accidents. There is a growing incidence of aggressive driving ("Road Rage") by people in a hurry to get to their work. Unfortunately, many of you have probably lost a friend or family member in a car crash at some point in your lives. In addition, billions of dollars are lost due to property damage, medical expenses and other costs associated with traffic accidents. Also, there is the pain suffered by those of us who are left behind or must care for a loved one injured in a commuting accident - it's hard to put a price on that. Think of a child that will never get a hug from Mom or Dad again. Some of those accidents occur during commutes to and from work, and some of them are truly unnecessary. My wife and I have six kids and five of the six have had automobile accidents driving either to or from their workplace. Some occurred because of the boredom associated with the "same old drive" everyday, and they just fell asleep at the wheel. Others were due to road conditions, such as ice and snow. Fortunately for us, none of our children was killed, but there were some really close calls. I've had three accidents during commutes to or from work. All of them could have been fatal, but again, we were lucky. My work can all be done from my home workstation.

If we truly are looking to enhance the safety in our workplace, we should look at whether or not *all* commutes to and from work are really necessary. Every unnecessary commute poses an unnecessary hazard. It is a hazard not only to those who are driving to work when they don't really need to, but it's also a hazard to others on the road who must deal with the unnecessary traffic. If we really *care* about safety and human lives, we must look at this potential hazard and *deal* with it, just as we are looking at other potential hazards associated with our employment.

I have spent most of my career addressing safety in the nuclear industry. Not once have I encountered a fatality or injury associated with radiation that was nuclear related (ie, caused by radiation). However, all throughout my career I have learned of people who were injured or died on the way to or from work. Now, toward the end of my career, I am beginning to wonder if I may have spent all my energies focusing on something that really never mattered much with regard to worker or public safety. If I really wanted to help my fellow human beings, maybe I should have focused on an area where people really *are* dying and really *are* becoming hurt and disabled every day: commuting! Maybe it's not too late, though. If you get my message and take some action, perhaps together we can all make a difference and do something that saves *real lives*, and not just *hypothetical lives*.

I urge you to learn more about telecommuting and how you could help keep commutes safer for us all by working and performing other activities from your home or a "satellite" location close to your home. Many of you want to and can do your work from home most or all of the time. The technology exists to allow you to be as effective (if not more so) working from your home workstation, as you would be working in an "onsite" office. If you need to be at your employer's official worksite, consider asking some of your coworkers to stay at home and do their work from there, so that you and other members of the public don't have to deal with as much traffic (and the associated hazard) every day. In addition to improved safety, you and your coworkers will benefit from improved health, as well.

If you agree with me about the safety and health benefits of telecommuting, please let your family, your friends, your management, and your legislators know, now. Every day that goes by and every unnecessary mile that is driven to and from an activity that could be done by telecommuting represents the potential for someone to get hurt or killed.


Rick Johnson, Founder and Director
Telecommuting Safety & Health Benefits Institute
Last updated: April 1, 1998
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