During the Coronavirus crisis the UK has undergone a ‘revolution’ in terms of the way we do business, not least the opportunity for huge numbers of employees to work from home.
With employers and their staff having discovered the benefits of home-working – from both a human and business productivity perspective – business leaders are predicting that the number of workers continuing to work from home will remain high even after the Coronavirus crisis begins to abate. However, with home working being new and uncharted territory for so many businesses, what are employers’ legal obligations and responsibilities?
Employer’s Legal Obligations
As with an employee working at a traditional place of work, be that an office building, or a factory etc, a ‘remote worker’, or an employee working from home, is entitled to the same duty of care from their employer.
The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act (and its subsequent amendments) is the primary source of legislation that dictates workplace safety throughout the UK, and it makes no legal distinction between ‘remote’ and ‘in-office’ workers.
While the 1974 Health and Safety Act doesn’t mention home workers specifically, the Management of Health and Safety Regulations, introduced in 1999, does, stating that employers are “responsible for the health and safety of home workers, as far as is reasonably practicable”.
So what are the “reasonably practicable” health and safety measures that employers are responsible for?
At-home Risk Assessments
The 1999 regulations stipulate that all employers need to carry out risk assessments on the working environments of their remote workers to enable the employer to identify potential health risks, which it can then seek to mitigate.
Much like an office-based risk assessment, a home working risk assessment should not only consider the area in which the employee will physically carry out their duties, but also broader health and safety concerns, including mental health.
How to approach a risk assessment for remote workers:
- The same approach and standards should be adopted for at-home risk assessments as they are for office-based workers
- There is no requirement to conduct an ‘on site’ visit to the employee’s home – particularly if a national or local lockdown is in place at the time – however a self-assessment questionnaire can be provided to the employee for them to conduct their own health and safety risk assessment.
- Alternatively, a risk assessment could be conducted in conjunction with the employee via a telephone call or video conference in order for the employer to be fully satisfied with the workspace being used.
What should be assessed?
When conducting a risk assessment, in-office or otherwise, there are certain criteria that must be met by law. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The employee’s work area should be well lit, well ventilated, and provide enough space to work comfortably.
- If a computer is used for long periods of time, it should be set up to allow for continuous use without discomfort or fatigue. The monitor should be easily legible, not subject to glare or light reflection, and should be placed at a suitable height to avoid eye or neck strain.
- The employee’s seating should be comfortable, supportive and the right height to avoid back, shoulder and neck strain.
- The working space should be free of trip hazards, including dangling or trailing cables.
- Potential electrical hazards need to be identified, ensuring fittings and cables are working correctly and free from damage.
- Smoke alarms and fire extinguishers should be present, fully functioning, and provided if required. Blocked heating vents on computer equipment and overloaded sockets are a common cause of fires.
- Employees should have access to a first-aid kit, and should have the contact details of a designated first-aid officer to contact in the event of accident or injury.
- Equipment such as wrist guards, footrests or other items needed for assistance or support should be provided if required.
Employee Mental Health
Employers have a duty of care for their employees’ mental well-being, as well as their physical well-being, and any potential risks to the employee’s mental health should be identified and monitored.
Every employee is different. Where some will thrive when working from home, others will be more psychologically impacted by working in isolation, including anxiety and depression.
Studies have shown that a sense of isolation or loneliness is among the leading causes of depression among remote workers. It is therefore vital for employers to maintain communication with their staff in order to prevent isolation and support mental health, as well as improve productivity.
Employer’s Liability Insurance
Any business, whether they have remote workers or not, is legally required to take out employer’s liability insurance.
The purpose of employer’s liability insurance is to ensure that should an employee suffer an accident within the workplace (or remote workplace) the business can cover the cost of any compensation payouts.
Businesses that fail to conduct adequate risk assessments for their employees can potentially invalidate their company’s insurance policy, should an accident or illness occur.
Review the Health & Safety Policy
It is becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 will remain part of our lives for some time to come, and is something that we have to learn to live with.
Given the success of the work-from-home ‘experiment’, in years to come, whether the virus is still present or not, it is likely that an increasing number of firms will offer their future workforce the option to work from home in some form or another – not least in anticipation of local lockdown from time to time.
It is therefore prudent for employers to review their existing risk assessments and health and safety policies to better reflect the requirement for employees to work from home.