On December 3, 2021, the Quebec Administrative Labour Tribunal (Occupational Health and Safety Division) released a decision that found an employee had suffered an occupational injury when she fell while working from home.
In Air Canada and Gentile-Patti, 2021 QCTAT 5829 (CanLII), the Employee was a customer service agent for Air Canada who was working from home. Upon disconnecting from work for her lunch break, the Employee was walking downstairs when she lost her footing and fell, injuring herself in the process. Air Canada did not dispute the Employee’s injuries. Instead, Air Canada argued that the fall did not occur during work, and that it had no control over the Employee’s activities when she was not at her computer. The issue the Tribunal was tasked with determining was whether the Employee’s fall on the stairs of her residence while going on her lunch break was an event that occurred during work.
In its analysis, the Tribunal stated that a work accident is an “unforeseen and sudden event” that occurs as a result of or in the course of work. It noted that the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases does not provide a separate analysis for an “unforeseen and sudden event” that occurs outside of the employer’s premises. The Tribunal stated that, in light of the context in which an unforeseen and sudden event occurs, it pays great attention to the following factors: the relationship of subordination, the purpose of the activity being carried out and its connection with the performance of the work. The Tribunal then stated the following proposition that guided its decision (translated):
 … the Tribunal must seek the purpose of the activity carried out by the worker at the time of the occurrence of the event. If the purpose of the activity carried out does not fall within the framework of the activities, expectations, concerns or objectives of the employer, it will become part of the personal sphere of the worker and cannot be considered as occurring during work.
In light of this proposition, the Tribunal recognized that when employees work from home, they are more frequently passing between the personal sphere of their lives and the professional sphere. However, it noted that the law should protect employees working from home in the same way as if they were working on the employer’s premises.
The Tribunal then went on to find that there were certain factors in this incident that made it an unforeseen and sudden event occurring in the course of work. Specifically, the Tribunal noted that the reason the Employee was home during the hours of her shift was because of her professional obligation with Air Canada to work her scheduled shift. In addition, during her shift, Air Canada has the Employee on a precise schedule that allows her to take breaks at a set time. This precise schedule connects the act of the Employee taking her break with her work, therefore establishing temporal proximity between her disconnection from Air Canada’s virtual network and the fall.
In response to Air Canada’s argument that when an accident occurs at a worker’s home, it has no control over the keeping of the premises to ensure safety, the Tribunal noted that this was simply an application for compensation and not a case examining the employer’s obligations to manage the workplace in terms of health and safety. The Tribunal also noted a number of situations where an “unforeseen and sudden event” has been deemed to have occurred during work where the employer could not manage the workplace, such as in a hotel room, conference hall or parking lot.
In light of the foregoing, the Tribunal ruled that the Employee suffered an occupational injury, as the fall that occurred moments after disconnecting from work to go on break was connected to her work, and therefore represented an unforeseen and sudden event that occurred during work. The Employee was thus entitled to compensation.
Although the pandemic has expounded many issues with work-from-home arrangements, the applicability of workers’ compensation to remote workers has long raised concerns regarding an employer’s control of a private space. And while the legal precedent set by this decision is applicable to Quebec, the Tribunal’s analysis is similar to that applied across various provincial workers’ compensation boards. Here, the Tribunal distinguished a compensation claim from an employer’s obligations to provide a safe workplace. Nevertheless, the relationship is certainly interdependent: the purpose of an employer’s safety obligations is to minimize the opportunity for workplace injuries. Employers cannot control a private residence, its state of repair, or the equipment/devices used by the worker away from their work desk. While the Tribunal notes that an employer cannot control a hotel room or a conference hall, there may be opportunities in such instances to transfer the costs of a workers’ compensation claim to a more responsible third party employer.
Another concern is that cases like these will serve as an incentive for some employers to exert more control over the work-from-home arrangement (such as increased monitoring, or even some form of safety audit), or conversely, simply discontinue the practice. However, as remote work is likely to play a significant role for the foreseeable future, workers’ compensation boards may consider re-examining the role of the private residence in determining whether an accident has occurred “in the course of employment.”
If you have any questions about this topic, other COVID-19 related questions, or any questions relating to workplace law generally, please do not hesitate to contact a Mathews Dinsdale lawyer or refer to the Firm’s other COVID-19 website resources.