Legal rights and coronavirus: Health and safety protections for home workers
With many of us now working from home in an effort to remain socially distant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, workplace injury solicitor Ross Whalley discusses what safety protections should be offered to home workers by their employers.
Posted on 22 April 2020
As part of the nationwide lockdown, employees should work from home where possible and many of us are now getting used to this as our ‘new normal’.
Although employees may not be in their offices or places of work employers still owe their home-working employees a duty of care. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires that an employer does everything “reasonably practicable” to safeguard their employees and those affected by their operations.
Let me highlight the protections that all employers should be considering for their home workers.
Facilitate equipment and technology
Employers should consider what work equipment they have already which may enable home working. For items such as laptops, keyboards, screens or a mouse, this could mean allowing workers to take equipment home. Where this is not possible, say for larger items, such as ergonomic chairs and height-adjustable desks, employers should encourage workers to try other ways of creating a comfortable working environment including the use of supporting cushions and changing heights of chairs and desks via alternative, but safe means. Employers can also help provide IT and ergonomic guidance on home work station set up.
For those working at home on a long-term basis, the risks associated with using Display Screen Equipment must be controlled. Whilst employers cannot currently be expected to perform home workstation assessments, simple training can be undertaken via video links. In addition, employers should be providing DSE guidance to employees, such as breaking up long spells of DSE work with rest breaks (at least five minutes every hour) or changes in activity and avoiding eye fatigue by deliberately changing focus.
As with DSE, the risks associated with position and sitting for long periods must be controlled. Employers should provide ergonomic guidance for optimal workstation set up and proper posture. Arms should be relaxed by the side, head should be balanced not learning forward, a screen should be positioned at eye level and arm’s length away. Seating and feet positioning are also vital consideration. Guidance is required to warn against awkward, static postures by regularly changing position as well as getting up and moving or doing stretching exercises.
Assess mental health
Home working can cause work-related stress and affect people’s mental health. For some employees this will be exacerbated by also managing family responsibilities. So there is clearly a greater need for an employer to be flexible and to assess mental health.
Employers should put procedures in place to keep in direct contact with home workers. This will enable an employee’s symptoms of stress or other mental health issues to be recognised as early as possible.
Sharing details of an emergency point of contact will enable employees to get help where needed.
Whilst it is not a mandatory requirement, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) will prove more useful than ever before. EAPs allow workers to remotely access support and counselling services on a wide range of issues including domestic, financial and mental health challenges.
Keeping in touch generally
Employers should keep in regular contact with their employees, including making sure they do not feel isolated and without supervision or adequate guidance. This should include regular communications amongst all levels of staff and new methods of communication such as video calling technologies.
Given the extended period for working from home, employers should regularly assess how their systems and temporary arrangements are working and make improvements. Considerations may include whether IT systems can handle the number of staff working from home, the level of IT support for homeworkers and what extra equipment could be posted or collected.
With the current lockdown in place for at least a further three weeks and potentially longer, both employers and employees should be practical, flexible and understanding of each other's situation.
For employers, responsibilities do not now end simply because workers are away from their normal place of work. Similarly, employees also have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and should keep in regular contact with their managers about any health and safety risks.