Health and Safety when Working at Home
26 March 2020
Are you sitting comfortably?
Long before the public at large had heard of a ‘coronavirus’, working from home (or ‘remote working’) had become increasingly popular with more and more employees spending at least a portion of their week working remotely.
Now, in an incredibly short space of time, employers around the world have been advised to encourage employees to work from home where possible. This sudden shift is likely to pose a number of challenges. Employers should take care to ensure that the health and safety of their employees does not fall prey to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.
The requirements of health and safety legislation largely extend to home workers. Crucially, this includes the general requirement to ensure the health and safety of all employees as far as reasonably practicable and to appropriately assess risks to health and safety.
Employers with remote workers who mainly use screens will also be required to comply with the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1992. Breach of health and safety legislation may attract enforcement action, up to and including prosecution. The Health and Safety Executive (Great Britain) (‘HSE (GB)’) has gone further in its response to the coronavirus, to clarify that those employers with temporary home workers do not need to do display screen equipment (DSE) workstation assessments (https://bit.ly/3aorTuR). (It is important to note that we are not yet aware of similar statements from other regulators but would hope for a shared approach.) HSE (GB)’s clarity will likely come as a relief, however employers should continue to assess what they can do that is reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of their employees. For one thing, it is currently not clear how ‘temporary’ home working will be as a result of recommended isolation measures. HSE (GB) provides different advice for those working at home on a ‘long-term basis’, including the requirement that home workstation assessments are undertaken. While ‘temporary’ and ‘long-term’ are not (yet) defined, employers will be hopeful that regulators may give them the benefit of the doubt in the current circumstances. Employers should however be mindful of the potential impact to each employee’s health, morale and productivity that may follow poor home working conditions for weeks, or indeed months, on end.
Clearly, what is ‘reasonably practicable’ will vary between employers. The impact of the COVID-19 prevention measures will likely have an impact on what employers are able to achieve. HSE (GB) offers advice for employers and employees, including a practical workstation checklist that can be given to employees. This provides a number of relatively straightforward, low cost measures that can be taken by employers, relating to workstations, stress and mental health. IOSH also provides comprehensive guidance on how to conduct a risk assessment for remote working and a checklist that can be used for office based organisations. While HSE (GB) again states that it is not a requirement to provide a checklist to temporary home workers, the HSE (GB) and IOSH checklists contain simple, practical advice on steps that may be taken. It is worth nothing that further resources are also available on HSE (NI)’s website.
Employees with specialised DSE needs should be given additional consideration, particularly where the employer has been made aware of medical conditions that could be exacerbated by inappropriate working conditions. HSE (GB) advises that employers try to meet the needs of these employees where possible. A consideration can still be made however as to what measures are reasonably practicable. For example, with regard to specialised DSE equipment, such as ergonomic chairs or height adjustable desks, HSE (GB) recommends that workers are encouraged in the first instance to try other ways of creating a comfortable working environment such as using ‘supporting cushions’. The risk to the employee’s health and any underlying, relevant conditions must of course be taken into account.
Employers should not expect to develop a complete approach to managing this issue overnight. As per general guidance on assessing risk, ideally a feedback loop should be created, involving input from employees. For example, in the case of remote working workstations, employers may take the following approach:
- Identify hazards by issuing guidance and / or a workstation checklist to employees and requesting feedback within a set period (e.g. 1 week);
- Assess feedback and determine what can reasonably be done (e.g. permit the employee to take home their mouse and keyboard from the office);
- Implement changes as appropriate;
- Evaluate the effectiveness of action taken (e.g. a phone call or email to the affected employee); and
- Repeat from step 1.
If any risk assessments or protocols are developed, these should be documented.
The current measures introduced to curtail COVID-19 may inadvertently trigger the ‘remote working revolution’. Employers and employees alike may come to embrace the benefits of working from home such as increased flexibility and lower overheads. Of course, any goodwill toward home working will likely depend on how ‘temporary’ working from home becomes and for some, how long the schools remain closed. Regardless, taking the reasonable measures outlined above will hopefully go some way to maintaining a healthy, happy and productive workforce.
*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.