The disease of mobility

A new survey has provided a timely reminder for employers that their obligations to ensure a safe working environment do not stop at the office foyer.

commentary A new survey has provided a timely reminder for employers that their obligations to ensure a safe working environment do not stop at the office foyer.
Iain Ferguson, News Editor, ZDNet Australia

With some 2.8 million Australians currently telecommuting -- a figure set to rise to 3.4 million by 2008, according to IDC -- the issue should be looming large on employers' radar.

However, according to the 2006 Getting a Grip on IT survey -- prepared by the Sydney Chamber of Commerce (SCC) in partnership with Unisys - only about half of employer respondents are actively enforcing occupational health and safety standards when an employee is working at a venue (say a home office) outside their usual workplace.

This had changed little over the past 12 months and one-third of those surveyed were not even aware they were required to do this, the authors claimed.

"The message about the need to observe occupational health and safety standards, regardless of where the employee is working doesn't seem to be getting through to many businesses," they said.

These results yet again demonstrate the struggle society faces to rejig its legal, social and other structures to accommodate the impact of largely technology-driven changes to the way we work and live.

While employers -- and highly motivated employees -- are eager to seize upon the productivity gains made possible by wireless notebooks, BlackBerrys and the like, the medium- to longer-term health consequences of working without say, the type of ergonomic desk-chair setup common in most offices could put a severe cramp in those outcomes.

At a time when employers seem to have overcome a natural fear that teleworking employees will skive off or, at the very least ease back on the throttle when it comes to productivity (less than 10 percent of employers were concerned about the issue, according the SCC), occupational health and safety beyond the office looms as one of the most significant workplace issues of this decade and beyond.

The SCC says employers should "actively consult" with employees to set agreed boundaries for the use of mobile technology. It would be interesting though, to see to what extent those boundaries are treated as "flexible" by a noughties workforce that generally regards existing limitations on mobility (such as prohibitions on the use of mobile phones in cars) as to be obeyed only when a police car is in sight.

What do you think? Is the largely unconstrained environment of teleworking threatening to cripple a generation of workers, or is it perhaps a growing litigiousness in our society that is focusing people on occupational health and safety? How should the workplace health and safety regulations developed over decades be translated to the mobile workforce? E-mail me at and give me your feedback.

Iain Ferguson is the News Editor of ZDNet Australia.

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