Despite the abrupt switch to homeworking, many businesses have remained productive under lockdown. Some staff who were initially wary of homeworking have thrived.
As the lockdown eases, office-based businesses across the UK are faced with a choice; should homeworkers be summoned back to the office, or should the company embrace a “new normal” of homeworking?
entering the remote working era.
The regulations concerning workplace health and safety were not suspended or modified during lockdown. The rules apply equally to office workers and those who work from home. As such, businesses must apply the same rigorous standards of health, safety and wellbeing to homeworkers as are applied to all other staff.
An employer’s duty to safeguard the health and safety employees is arguably the most important of their legal obligations. Moving from ad hoc lockdown measures to longer-term homeworking should prompt a wholesale review of your remote working policies, and particularly in regard to health and safety.
According to RoSPA, more accidents occur at home than anywhere else. Working from home exposes an employee to these hazards, and will create additional dangers too.
Additional homeworking risks also affect other members of the household, and include trip hazards like trailing cables, files and furniture, and electrical hazards caused by printers, PCs and other office equipment.
An employer is liable if a homeworker is injured during the course of their work. The business may even be liable in the event another member of the household is injured due to a homeworker’s work activity.
By law, a health and safety assessment should be carried out to identify and manage risks to workers’ safety and the safety of others. In the context of homeworking, these checks often take the form of a self-assessment questionnaire.
time to review homeworking self-assessments.
Even if you have already asked homeworking staff to carry out an initial health and safety self-assessment when the lockdown started, now would be a good time to review the suitability and accuracy of the checks.
Two months after the hurried setup of a home workstation, staff will have evolved their setup. Workers may have changed desks, moved rooms or otherwise adapted in the weeks since the first assessment.
If your business didn’t have homeworking procedures in place before lockdown, it’s also likely that the self-assessment was generic. Now would be a good time to work with remote staff to tailor a self-assessment to reflect the specific needs and hazards of their work. Examples include:
- If a worker is typing for long periods, their assessment should include a focus on wrist support, correct posture and regular breaks.
- If an employee spends long periods on the phone, or using a headset, noise-related risks should be covered.
- If a worker requires the use of many paper files or document boxes, guidance should be given on manual handling injuries and organisation to reduce the risk of trip (and fire) hazards.
the risks of long-term remote working.
There is one key difference to consider when you pivot from short-term lockdown homeworking to a more permanent solution. The impact of long-term occupational health hazards should be addressed.
As yet, most lockdown homeworkers will be unaffected by eye strain, posture-related back problems and repetitive strain injuries. If you expect homeworking to continue for the foreseeable future, these risks must be managed.
It is particularly important to actively manage these occupational hazards because their effect is gradual and cumulative. Trip hazards are easy to spot during an assessment, but the risk of back strain is not.
A self-assessment for long-term homeworkers should consider these silent hazards. Management steps can include:
- provide ergonomic furniture,
- guidance on how to correctly set the height of desks and monitors, and,
- regular breaks to guard against eye strain and wrist strain.
Like occupational health hazards, mental health risks are more difficult to identify. Some workers will be at greater risk than others. Homeworking also makes it difficult for managers and HR staff to check in on staff, and passively monitor workers’ mental health.
Assessments for both short- and long-term remote working should consider the impact on employees’ mental health.
Symptoms are often noticed only after they seriously affect a worker’s health and standard of work. To help identify employees having difficulty, your business should proactively care for employees’ wellbeing.
Care can be as simple as encouraging employees to come forward about any concerns, and being available to discuss issues on a video call, perhaps even after hours. Collaboration and chat tools like Zoom, Slack and Discord can also be used to simulate a friendly office environment. These steps can reduce the sense of isolation that some homeworkers feel.
employers’ legal obligations.
As with workers’ health and safety generally, a wide range of legislation protects homeworkers.
The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 provides the basic framework, while regulations including the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 explicitly references homeworkers.
Under the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969, companies must have suitable employers’ liability (EL) insurance in place. This insurance guarantees that, if an employee is injured, they are able to claim compensation for their work injury.
EL insurance also ensures that the business does not have to pay the compensation itself. This provision enables employees to make a claim for an accident at work without feeling that they are “hurting the business” by doing so.
By law, EL policies cover homeworkers by default. However, you should still read the fine print of your company’s EL policy and check if there are specific provisions concerning homeworkers.
If you fail to fulfill the terms of the policy, compensation will still be paid to an injured worker, but the insurer may then sue you to recover their costs.
planning for the future.
Even if your business does plan to return to the office as the lockdown eases, you should still develop robust, formal homeworking processes. If a “second wave” prompts another lockdown, or another outbreak occurs in the future, the transition to homeworking will be easier and your employees will be safer.