So many of our customers are sending colleagues to work from home during the current pandemic. This raises lots of questions about how to manage the health and wellbeing of temporary homeworkers, whether safety laws apply, and what is regarded as ‘reasonable measures’. In this article, Jon Abbott details the advice we are offering our clients.
A decision may or may not have been made by your organization to send employees to work from home, or to allow for greater flexibility in working remotely. You might also have allowed colleagues to request to work from home like we’re allowing at Cardinus Risk Management. At the moment, you have no idea how long this period will last for. If you have taken that decision, you now need to advise management on how to tackle some of the direct risks associated with large numbers of employees working from home.
At the highest level, it is essential that the process of sending workers home is risk assessed and the findings from that assessment used to update any interim policies and procedures you may choose to implement.
Contractual Arrangements for Home Workers
I have been asked about contractual arrangements for sending employees to work from home. You may want to explore this with your HR team or Legal Counsel. Under health and safety law, you are formally creating a network of homeworkers simply because you are not giving them the option to attend an office.
As such, your obligations to your colleagues is that of a formal homeworker. I would like to hope there would be a level of pragmatism around this, but I can feel every lawyer in the country smirking at my use of the word!
Home Working Risk Factors
While you are focusing on your DSE and ergonomics risks, home working brings other risks into play.
Many of your employees might have the appropriate equipment to work from home. For those that do not, or are required to use their own equipment, you will need to explore the implications of asking them to use it – I know there is already a shortage of devices available.
We need to be realistic in terms of how your homeworkers will be working. Many of your staff will not have office-style setups and have limited space to work in, so we must assume they will be using their devices at dining room tables, kitchen counters, and couches.
None of these are conducive to good posture and comfort. In my opinion, there is little point in delivering standard DSE training or assessments as the training will not be relevant and any assessment will uncover huge amounts of risk that your organization is unlikely to respond to without incurring management time and cost.
Wheelchair users or those with severe disabilities are likely to have modified home environments, it is likely they will be OK, but we would recommend that their managers make contact and check that that arrangements are appropriate.
Of more concern are colleagues with less significant injuries who may be using a sit-stand workstation or other modified equipment. Depending on the issue and the length of time of the homeworking period, you will need to consider the advice being provided and ship any equipment to them.
Even then, you may have issues with space to accommodate the equipment. Individuals may benefit from a one-to-one discussion with greater emphasis on where to get help and support during the period. Remember to take a file notes of these discussions.
You do need to consider other risks associated with home working such as stress, lone working, manual handling, fire and so on. We are recommending that an assessment is completed at a corporate level that takes account of the specific work environment and needs of the employee.
The main issues you need to consider are:
- Mental wellbeing
- Supervision/working alone
Working arrangements are also important. For example, some employees may find it difficult to adapt to working in an environment with limited social contact, while others may find it harder to manage their time or to separate work from home life.
This might be a bigger issue during a pandemic as there may also be a need to care for a partner or child and schools and businesses may close, which will bring additional pressures.
This highlights the importance of maintaining good communication systems and formal means of contact with remote workers to minimize feelings of isolation.
How you do this will depend on the number of remote workers you’re dealing with and what they’re doing, but you should consider how your team and line managers will communicate and continue to communicate during this period.
You don’t want to risk an employee being able to claim; “I was hurting but I didn’t know what to do or who to speak with…”.
A guide to addressing emergencies will also be useful. A homeworker may be operating from a first-floor bedroom, which poses the question – how would they escape if a fire breaks out?
We need to encourage a personal evacuation plan. An emergency response plan should be considered too. As a lone worker, what would happen in the event of a medical emergency?
Some simple guidance and perhaps a “how-to” guide should help. You will need to ensure that employees who suffer an accident, illness or assault while they’re working alone are supported and ensure you have a reporting program in place. It also needs to be followed.
To a degree, we are in unchartered waters. The guidance I am offering is pragmatic, but it is ultimately up to a court to determine whether your actions have been appropriate in the event of a claim. By assessing your risks, addressing those risks, documenting your actions and communicating effectively with your colleagues you should be able to limit any culpability.
Cardinus has a free smartphone app that provides excellent stretching exercises. Search for “Healthy Working Cardinus” and you will see our stretching exercise app. It’s perfect for getting homeworkers to think about stretching and exercise.