Homeworking hazards: What employers need to know

Chris Salmon, Director of Occupational Injuries, Quittance, explains the issues employers need to think about when staff are working from home

As an employer navigating the coronavirus pandemic, you may have already transitioned some (or all) of your staff to homeworking. This article considers the legal obligations you owe to your newly-homeworking team.

Working from home hugely reduces the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. However, homeworking can actually increase the risk of injury and illness to your staff if health and safety regulations are not followed.

Homeworking health and safety hazards

Many remote working hazards are identical to those faced by office workers. If you have carried out a risk assessment for an office, the same concerns regarding ergonomic chairs and workstations, loose cables, eye strain and wrist pain still apply.

Even if you are not supplying monitors, keyboards, chairs and desks, it is still your legal responsibility to ensure a homeworker’s setup is suitable and safe. Less obvious risks such as fire safety and manual handling issues must also be considered.

It is impractical to visit the home of every homeworker in-person (and unwise during a pandemic), but you can provide staff with a self-assessment form instead. This self-assessment should ideally be tailored to the nature of an employee’s work, and templates can be found online to help your HR function with this.

It is crucial that both employers and employees understand the need to take this self-assessment seriously. Treating it as a box-ticking exercise is unlikely to make employee’s safer, and failing to conduct adequate assessments could invalidate the company’s employers’ liability insurance if an injury or illness does occur.

Productivity, strain and stress

In addition to assessing the physical components of a worker’s home setup, you should also consider the ways the employee’s workflow and working environment change by working remotely.

In the absence of regular meetings, coffee breaks and lunch, there is a risk that employees’ behaviour changes. Staff could be at greater risk of eye strain, back injuries and other occupational illnesses as they take fewer or inconsistent breaks.

Studies show that many workers thrive in home working conditions, but others may not. The physical presence of a manager, their team, and the structure of a day in the office can provide a welcome source of motivation and community.

There is a risk that some workers develop mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and isolation-fuelled depression. This risk is compounded by the fact that it is harder to passively monitor or check-in with homeworkers.

Identify and manage risks

Whether the risk is trailing cables, stress or eye strain, you must act. In some cases, dangers can be managed via simple, low-cost solutions like cable ties or a wrist rest. In other cases, you may need to take steps to ensure workers do take regular breaks.

You may need to provide at-risk workers with access to counselling or more bespoke HR support.

If you are aware of any existing health conditions (including mental health) among your team, you owe a specific legal duty towards those workers. You must make extra effort to manage and accommodate any such health issues, where it is reasonable and practical to do so.

The legal consequences of homeworking accidents

Given the massive and sudden rise in homeworking across the UK (including many workers who will have never worked from home before), some accidents may be inevitable.

If a homeworking employee is injured or becomes sick during the course of their employment, your business could be liable. By law, your employers’ liability insurance must be fit for purpose, and must also cover homeworking if required.

The case law on home working injury is evolving. Where working from home ends, and living at home starts, is still a grey area. The safest course for any employer to take is to assume the broadest interpretation.

This course involves making sure that workstations are safe at all times of the day, not just from 9-5. A self-assessment should confirm that any equipment or environment that a worker could interact with in the course of their working day is safe, including in the kitchen and bathroom. You must also ensure the worker’s setup is safe for other residents, including children.

Communication is crucial

We are fortunate to be ‘locked down’ in the age of Skype, Zoom, Slack and Teams. There have never been more communication options to help remote workers collaborate and thrive, from basic, free options to enterprise-level solutions.

Whether you use video conferencing, chat or email, you should consider maintaining a regular and open dialogue with your homeworkers. In a the casual context of an open chat channel, for example, workers may feel more able to raise concerns before these risks manifest as accidents, injury and occupational illness.

Regular communication will also help to reduce feelings of loneliness and stress, and will help to ensure your workforce stays motivated, productive and healthy during these challenging times.

About the author:

Chris Salmon is a Director of Occupational Injuries at Quittance Legal Services