Peter Kinselley and Claudia Calder look at the health and safety challenges of the new flexible working environment. Specifically, what are the risk factors related to flexible working?
The global pandemic has created a glut of health and safety issues; some of them have been widely reported, such as mental health issues and musculoskeletal injury. The safety profession has been at the front of organisational responses by companies seeking to support staff health and wellbeing while the virus continues to affect our daily lives.
However, as we look to the future, various business people, from the Barclays’ CEO to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, have suggested that their workplaces will undergo a huge transformation. Gone will be the requirement for rigid office working, and in its stead, a more flexible approach to working will be adopted.
This will mean workers will be based partly in the office, or partly in the home workplace, and commuting between the two for meetings, social interactions and collaboration. It’ll mean a more considered way of working with a greater emphasis on the type of work and how it fits the environment.
This is what is called flexible working, but you may know it as agile working, remote working, telecommuting, or hybrid working.
What constitutes a flexible workplace?
The UK Government define flexible working “as a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example, having flexible start and finish times, or working from home”.
The effect of this is that organisations are looking at employee contracts with a move towards a new flexible working structure. To make this work organisations are also looking at new technology, furniture, working arrangements, management, and health and safety arrangements.
The benefits for employees are a better work/life balance, reduced stressed and improved wellbeing. The organisation benefits from this through improved engagement and productivity, so it’s a win-win.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) identify that quality flexible working can help organisations attract talent, improve employee job satisfaction and loyalty, reduce absenteeism, and improve wellbeing. It can also make businesses more responsive to change (CIPD).
In this article, however, we’re just going to focus on the health and safety risks associated with flexible working. There are numerous considerations so it’s worth spelling them out so we can make the appropriate choices as practitioners.
What are the health and safety risks associated with flexible working, and what are their control measures?
For employers, it’s important to note that Duty of Care does extend to the health and safety of workers even when working from home.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations employers are required to carry out suitable and sufficient risks assessments to manage the risks of ill-health caused by their work (and train the employee on these risks).
Ergonomics and Physical Health
There are many remote working challenges to consider in the flexible working environment. Much of this is caused by the lack of opportunity to move.
Ergonomics and health risks associated with work (and inactivity such as sitting for long periods) can manifest in musculoskeletal disorders and injury. In the long-term this poses health risks for the individual, but in the short-term this can lead to pain and discomfort that can slow productivity and performance, and often is linked to mental health or stress-related issues.
For many, the challenges of homeworking are space, technology and equipment. They should be considered as part of your plan to optimise home work health and minimise injury. This include
- Lack of space can lead to compromising on comfort. Those living in apartment, flats, or working from small spaces or are new to flexible working may well need different solutions to those established home office workers
- Technology can be used effectively to deliver training, encourage rest breaks or reinforce wellbeing. The aim of this technology is to provide employees with assistance in reducing static time in front of the computer and reminding them to move or change posture
- Robust processes for training, administering and assessing home work ergonomics and health should be put in place
- Finally, the equipment itself. Think about furniture, laptops, monitor screens, computer mouse and keyboard, wi-fi extenders, webcams, wiring and even Keyboard, Video, Mouse (KVM) switches to reduce the space required for equipment
The movement to the office requires new thinking too. What’s the purpose of office work? To bring people together? To get access to a collaborative environment? To work creatively with others? If people aren’t necessarily chained to their desks when in the office, what type of work are they doing and what should the environment look like to optimise work and health.
There is a third workspace, and perhaps a fourth, if one considers alternative workspaces that are neither the home or office. This could be a café or restaurant, a flexible or temporary office, hotel or even a train, bus or taxi while commuting. The considerations for this type of workspace will need to focus on training and knowledge, ensuring that the equipment is suitable, and of course maintaining appropriate levels of data and information security.
Basic Tips for Ergonomics in All Environments
- Undertake a DSE risk assessments if in the office or working from a desk
- Take time to set up your workstation, considering where you are working from and the equipment, you’re using
- Take at least a 5-minute break every hour
- Avoid awkward static positions by getting up, moving or doing stretching exercises
- Avoid eye tiredness using the 20-20-20 rule – every 20 mins look at something 20m away for 20 seconds
Wellness and Stress Management
Employee wellbeing has crumbled throughout the pandemic, and with that we’ve also seen heightened levels of stress. Much of this has been caused by the challenges we have faced in respect of our health, the economy, homeworking and our future.
A recent Lloyd’s Register survey of global workers (March 2021) highlighted the experience of workers during the pandemic in the starkest terms.
- People working from home during the pandemic are experiencing higher levels of stress with some withholding mental health conditions from their employer
- A better work-life balance is not translating directly into improvements in employee wellbeing. Much of this is based on having to balance family, working and schooling
- Remote workers highlighted the need for employers to evaluate their approach to mental health as well as physical safety
It’s important, therefore, that employers take this learning and develop a programme to ensure that appropriate control measures are in place for employee wellbeing and stress management. Any program should consider the following:
- Keep informed – Share information from reputable sources
- Communicate – Keep in regular contact with your team
- Everyone has mental health and ill-health – Mental health affects everyone
- Awareness – Understanding of your team and/or team mates, especially if you see any behaviour changes
- Promote access to support – Advertise where staff can get help whether it be the organisation’s EAP or other identified support
- Use technology for work and social aspects of work – Encourage people to maintain informal conversations, including video call lunches, coffee chats and birthday celebrations
- Encourage personal planning and self-care – Encourage staff to plan how they will manage if they need to self-isolate or quarantine. Encourage staff to exercise, eat well and sleep better
- Be aware of a range of anxieties – E.g. fears about job security, fears about contracting COVID-19 (or family members or friends), fears about returning to work and using public transport
- Train your managers to understand how best to support their teams
Health and Safety
There are many considerations for the health and safety of staff when it comes to flexible working. It is, of course, an employer’s Duty of Care to provide the employee with the knowledge to manage their risks when working remotely.
Here are the areas you will need to consider.
The main risks from electricity are fire and electric shocks. Electricity is the most common cause of accidental fires in the workplace, but can be managed through practical control measures. Electric shocks can be fatal or cause serious damage to the body internally and externally.
Employers must ensure that electrical equipment provided by the employer is safe and correctly maintained. But, employers are not responsible for the domestic electric system.
Training is a key tool in giving employees knowledge on how to correctly and safely use equipment, who to report faults to, and how to carry out visual safety checks. It can also be useful for helping employees understand how to maintain a safe environment at home to reduce the risk of fire and improve outcomes should the worst happen.
Employees should in all environments follow these tips for their safety:
- Prior to using any electrical equipment (when the equipment is off), check the cables to ensure they are not damaged, you can do this by running your fingers along the cable. If you discover the cables are damaged, do not use the equipment and report it immediately to the appropriate person
- Do not overload sockets and do not “daisy chain” extensions
- Do not get any water near your electrical equipment, this includes ensuring that you don’t have wet hands when you touch a light-switch (for example) as you may receive a shock. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity and in combination can be lethal
- When removing or plugging in to a socket, make sure the switch is off
- Do not run cables under carpets or other floor coverings, this can lead to a build-up of heat resulting in fire, it is also difficult to inspect cables if they are covered up
- Do not remove any coverings from electrical equipment, unless you have been trained to do so
Employees should be educated in the fire safety risks when working from home, in the office, when travelling, or when working from an alternative location.
The employers duties in the workplace remain the same, however, when an employee is working from home the employer is only responsible for providing guidance and provide an understanding of how fires start, how to prevent fires, the risk to their safety from fire and more.
The law states that employers should undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to identify their first aid needs and have suitable first aid kit(s) available, appoint first aiders and that employees should be given adequate information about first aid arrangements.
However, for those working at home the advice differs. It is not the case that first aid equipment is required, if there’s low risk.
The Health and Safety Executive give the following advice for homeworkers and co-working spaces:
“If your work is low-risk, such as desk-based work and you work in your own home, you don’t need any first aid equipment beyond normal domestic needs.
If your work involves lots of driving, you may want to keep a first aid kit in your vehicle.
If you’re self-employed and based in a co-working space (shared workspace with other self-employed or employed workers) you’re legally responsible for your own first aid provision. However, you can make joint arrangements with the other occupiers. Usually, in a written agreement, one employer takes responsibility for first aid for all workers on the premises.”
First aid control measures in all environments:
Employers are expected to have:
- Completed a first-aid needs assessment
- Ensured that there is either an appointed person to take charge of first-aid arrangements or there are appropriate numbers of suitably trained first aiders
- Ensure that there are adequate facilities and a suitable stocked first aid kit
- Provide employees with information about the first-aid arrangements
- Consider informing your employer that if you have any health issues so they can be incorporated into the first aid needs assessment
- Where you may require urgent medication for a pre-existing condition (e.g. epi-pen for allergic reactions), you should consider informing your employer and with your permission, inform any trained first aider
Working alone carries a variety of risks. For many people who work at home doing desk-based work, there is little risk from lone working. But ‘knowledge workers’ travelling or working in co-work spaces or from cafes, etc, may face different challenges. Higher risk lone workers may include those who service properties, those who drive for work, or those who interact with the public alone.
It’s important that employers are aware of lone workers’ locations, and that other controls are in place, such as risk assessments and other safety measures, including PPE or RPE. The HSE has produced a good guide on the protection of lone workers.
Incorrect manual handling is one of the most common causes of injury at work. No matter where employees are working – from farms, to building sites, to office environments (and everywhere in between), including making deliveries – good manual handling technique and knowledge can help reduce work-related injury.
A good way of reinforcing good manual handling is by encouraging use of the TILE acronym. This breaks down the risk factors easily, and teaches employees to a structure in which to think about good manual handling.
TILE stands for Task, Individual, Load, Environment.
The Type of manual handling activity, such as pushing, pulling, lifting or carrying.
The capabilities of the person carrying out the manual handling activity.
The size, shape, surface, type and weight of the object being moved.
The area in which the object is being moved.
Control measures for employees in all environments:
- Know your capabilities
- Ask for help if you need assistance
- Wherever possible, establish weight before lifting
- Make sure there is a clear walkway
- Ensure the lighting is suitable
Carry out a trial lift, by rocking the load side to side slightly (gently) to get a ‘feel’ for it.
New and Expectant Mothers
New and expectant mothers have different risks and different needs. While you should not seek to prevent new or expectant mothers from working processes, environmental conditions and other factors need to be assessed to protect their health and safety.
Different environments present different factors that need to be assessed and understood, so that any changes can be put in place to mitigate any new risk.
Control measures for new and expectant mothers:
You should carry out a pregnancy/new mother risk assessment, taking into account:
- Movements and posture – Standing or sitting for long periods without taking a break, workstation/equipment use, and climbing up and down steps
- Manual Handling – Strenuous lifting, lifting of objects that are difficult or awkward, and repetitive work or movement)
- Noise – Being subjected to noise levels exceeding the Noise at Work Regulations)
- Biological/Infections – Dangers from bacteria and viruses, e.g. food, dirty toilets, biological work e.g. working in a laboratory)
- Chemical – Check COSHH regulations to determine whether chemicals pose a risk, and exposure to fumes
- Working conditions – Available quiet space for pregnant workers to rest, area for breastfeeding and the storing expressed milk
- Working hours – Long hours/overtime, early starts/finishes and night work
- Occupational stress – E.g. dealing with customers or complaints, the handling of cash and valuables and making the pregnant person or new mother aware of what she needs to do if she feels bullied or victimised
Slips, Trips and Falls
Slips, trips and falls is a huge area of risk that needs to be addressed. We recently featured an article in Cardinus Connect that showed how, every year, 300,000 people attend A+E due to a slip. While the majority of accidents happen outside, the home workplace can also be hazardous. It is worth providing guidance and training on slips, trips and falls tailored to all working environments.
Control measures for employees in any environment:
- A simple walk through of areas to identify zones where slip, trip and fall hazards are likely to occur including inspections of external areas
Make sure that the workplace is clean and tidy and challenge any build up in waste or anything which obstructs a walkway or fire exit. A great way to reduce accidents is to remind employees to be mindful when they are moving around. And encourage them to be less mind full!
This guide has looked at some of the key areas for risk management for flexible working, bringing in everything from health to first aid. We’ve also provided a list of control measures for these areas that you can bring in to your workplace to help manage those risks.
If you’d like help with any of the areas we’ve brought up here, contact our health and safety team on [email protected] or call 020 7469 0200.