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Worker' Comp Risks Grow as Workplace Becomes More Fluid, Mobile

The "traditional" office or other work environment for many Ohio employees -- as well as for workers throughout the rest of the country -- has greatly changed over the past generation.

"When I started working a few decades ago, things were pretty simple," says Maureen McCarthy, a workers' compensation manager at Liberty Mutual insurance company. "You went to an office, a physical location. You had to go there. Your work was there, and the cabinets were there, your boss was there. Conference calls were unheard of."

Contrast that to today's work world, where an estimated 30 million-plus employees do company business from home. Couple that impressive figure with millions more who toil for their employers from hotel rooms, clients' offices, libraries, airports, their own cars and, yes, occasionally the beach.

The changing landscape has been identified as a new and major variable in the workers' compensation arena, with insurance company spokespersons pointing to a new level of as-yet undefined risks and rewards.

"It used to be easy, working 9 to 5," says Charles Martin, a claims consulting chief for Marsh insurance company. "We knew what workers' comp was, we knew what compensability was. Things have changed."

They certainly have. McCarthy, Marsh and others now point to new and, often, judicially untested scenarios, such as this one: A woman is in a car accident. She might have been driving to daycare, but she was talking on a cell phone provided by her employer -- arguably to a client -- and just about to check e-mail -- company communications? -- on her employer-supplied laptop.

She files a workers' comp claim. How to adjudge it? Does company management encourage employees to do offsite work? Are work hours somewhat ill-defined at the company? Are conference calls scheduled for an employee who managers know is outside the office?

Much of this is new to courts, and the insurance experts advise employers and risk managers to quickly fill the void and set expectations by establishing clear rules concerning how and when employees use mobile devices.

"Ultimately, courts are going to start opining on this," says Michael Liebowitz, director of risk management at New York University. "They are going to force us down a path, but we have an opportunity today to change the rules or create them."

Related Resource: Insurance Journal, "As More Workers Go Mobile, Workers' Compensation Exposure Grows" June 1, 2011

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