Legal obligations: Health and safety of your (now) remote employees
How employers can monitor the health and safety of homeworkers
Health and safety for homeworkers might not have been on your Top 10 list as you sent employees to work remotely due to COVID-19.
Chris Salmon talks us through the legal obligations from a UK perspective:
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) reports that the home is the most common location for an accident to happen.
More so than workplaces or on the road.
For many businesses, the priority in recent weeks has been to ensure workers remain productive as operations pivot to homeworking.
However, employers must also consider their immediate legal obligations to ensure the health and safety of their (now) homeworkers.
Employers’ liability and homeworking
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, UK companies owe the same duty of care to homeworkers as to staff on company premises.
There is a range of actions that businesses should consider when managing the health and safety of homeworkers:
- Update your health and safety policy to address homeworking. Send a copy to every employee and ask them to read it, sign it and return a copy.
- If you provide your employees with any equipment, be sure you’ve checked it thoroughly for faults or safety risks. If there are issues, then make sure they are fixed before you hand over any equipment.
- Give each employee a first aid kit. If the employee has one already, ask for a photograph of the contents so you can assess if any extra supplies should be provided.
- Provide an emergency contact for your employees.
These measures help to demonstrate a commitment to the general wellbeing of homeworking employees.
However, it is vital that you also carry out a formal risk assessment on a homeworker’s environment, in order to identify and manage risks.
How to carry out a risk assessment at home
In an ideal world, a Health and Safety rep would visit each employee and conduct a risk assessment of their homeworking environment.
With coronavirus lockdown measures in place, this is not an option.
At-home risk assessments are in fact the norm for homeworkers.
HR managers can provide the employee with a detailed questionnaire to help the worker self-assess their workspace. The HR manager will then be on hand to offer guidance and support where necessary.
Ask the employee to pay close attention to the desk and chair set-up, along with any electrical equipment nearby.
You could ask the employee to send images or videos of their workspace to aid the process.
Some progressive companies are using video conferencing tools like Skype or Zoom to support the process further.
If your company has not already drafted an at-home risk assessment document, these can be found online.
The HSE has a free display screen equipment (DSE) workstation checklist.
The risk assessment should address areas of risk such as:
- The ergonomic set up of workstations
- Any trip hazards
- A viable fire escape route
- Any obstructions in and around the working area
- The requirement for any manual handling
You will need to address any issues identified by the assessment.
This might include providing the employee with a more ergonomic chair or a stand to raise their computer monitor.
It can be something simple, like giving advice on how to tidy up cables. Or keep their workplace free from obstructions.
Managing Mental Health Risks
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found that over half the UK population is experiencing high levels of coronavirus-induced anxiety.
This is caused by many factors: health fears, financial worries, depression triggered by social isolation, and the stress of major lifestyle changes.
Although research shows that many homeworkers are generally happier and more productive, this data mainly applies to those who choose to work from home.
Employees who have homeworking suddenly forced upon them may not see the same benefits.
Some employees will miss the social interaction of working with colleagues. Others will find homeworking stressful if they have no place to work effectively. Perhaps the change in routine makes it difficult to focus or be productive.
For these reasons, it is important to consider the mental health-related aspects of health and safety obligations when undertaking risk assessments on homeworkers.
Supporting at-risk homeworkers
It can be difficult for HR professionals to monitor the mental wellbeing of homeworking employees.
There is a very real risk that remote workers suffer in silence. And warning signs, like a drop in productivity or lack of communication, could be lost in the background noise of the coronavirus pandemic.
Using tools such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Slack to foster a culture of open communication and help recreate the convivial atmosphere of the workplace will assist HR managers in engaging with a remote workforce.
As well as broadcasting help and support, they can offer private counsel to individuals where required.
HR staff must also be vigilant as the lockdown eases and businesses grapple with how, and who, to return to in-office work. The transition period away from homeworking, or towards a part-time solution, could be challenging for many workers.
Care must be taken to clearly communicate what the business’s future plans are regarding homeworking.
This will give employees a sense of stability, and will reduce any anxiety that workers may suddenly be summoned back into the office.
Employer’s Liability Insurance
The Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 requires all businesses to carry employers’ liability (EL) insurance to ensure that an employee injured at work can be financially compensated.
Employers’ liability policies offer a degree of cover for remote workers. This cover includes ‘clerical activities’ for working either at home or another location away from the usual place of work.
Insurers are legally obliged to settle claims for injuries sustained by a remote-working employee.
To comply with the terms of a policy, employers must carry out adequate risk assessments and ensure that employees comply with health and safety procedures. If a homeworker is injured because their employer was negligent and did not carry out adequate checks, the insurer may sue the employer to recover their costs.
There is a grey area surrounding the limits of what may be counted as ‘in the course of an employee’s work’, and certain ‘non-clerical’ activities may not be covered under a standard EL policy.
Check the small print. Look at the policy wording to see what is (or isn’t) covered and also review what your responsibilities are towards your homeworking employees.
Managing homeworker health and safety in lockdown and beyond
Although these are unprecedented circumstances, it is important that employers do not lose sight of their health and safety duties for homeworkers.
Both employers and employees have a role to play in following both the letter and the spirit of the law.
The case law on the issue of homeworking injury claims is still evolving.
And as so many workers commence homeworking for the first time, it is likely there will be an increase in cases related to health and safety for homeworkers.
In the midst of challenging conditions, employers must not be so focused on business continuity that health and safety issues are neglected, leaving staff isolated and exposed to avoidable physical and mental harm.
How are you handling health and safety for homeworkers?
Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services. Chris has played key roles in the shaping and scaling of a number of legal services brands and is a regular commentator in the legal press.
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