To cope with the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and adhere to the government's guidance on social distancing, many employees have started to work from home. This article explains the employer's health and safety responsibilities towards this new group of temporary homeworkers.
Not everyone can work from home, of course, which is a major concern for many businesses especially in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. In businesses where working remotely is feasible, however, the context for homeworking has shifted dramatically.
Until a few weeks ago, homeworking was typically something that parents or long-distance commuters negotiated to help them balance work with their life outside work, or just something many of us did occasionally now that technology enables agile working. Suddenly, employers find themselves with large numbers of employees working from home every day, for the immediately foreseeable future. While employers have understandably been focused on the IT and logistical challenges, they should not overlook their legal responsibilities.
Employers owe a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, and provide and maintain a safe system of work, including for employees working from home. In practice, this means employers need to consider taking the following steps.
Asking employees to carry out risk assessments
Employers have a general duty to conduct a risk assessment of all the work activities carried out by their employees, and to take measures to reduce any associated risks. There are also specific obligations under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 to:
- identify risks for individuals who regularly use display screen equipment as a significant part of their usual work
- reduce the risks identified to the lowest extent reasonably practicable
- provide adequate training and information to employees.
Employers are not excused from health and safety requirements just because the employee is working temporarily from home. Many employees will be "making do" with their set-up at home, which may be less than ideal. It will not be possible for employers to visit employees' homes to carry out individual risk assessments, but they could ask employees to undertake a self-assessment - for example, by using a simple checklist.
Reducing risks and providing information
The employer does not necessarily need to provide special equipment for employees working from home, but it is still responsible for reducing risks and providing training and information. This might include:
- providing information on the importance of posture, how to make equipment adjustments, the need to take breaks and to change activity
- being clear that employees must raise any concerns or issues that arise
- considering a variety of risk mitigation strategies, such as allowing employees to take more breaks than usual
- providing equipment on a case-by-case basis if employees are identified as being at risk
- keeping the situation under review, since the adverse effect of homeworking for many weeks with a sub-optimal set-up will be greater than the risks associated with the odd day spent with a laptop at the kitchen table.
A common question currently is whether employees can or should be taking office equipment home with them. If an employee is disabled and requires certain equipment as a reasonable adjustment, it will normally be sensible to encourage them to take it home with them (see below).
In all other cases, however, staff should be encouraged to ask before taking things home. Employers owe a duty to take steps to ensure employees are working safely, so providing them with the right equipment would seem an obvious way of reducing the risks to their health. Nonetheless, employers need a system to ensure that requests can be managed on a case-by-case basis and for keeping track of their equipment.
Keeping up to date with guidance
The Irish Health and Safety Authority has issued guidance for employers and employees on temporary homeworking as a result of Coronavirus, which employers in the UK may find useful. We are not aware of the UK Health and Safety Executive producing anything similar, but they may well do so in the coming days or weeks.
Making reasonable adjustments for disabled employees
Disabled employees may be entitled to auxiliary aids as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010. If such an aid is reasonably needed, the employer needs to make sure it is provided – at its expense - to the individual when working from home. Where feasible, disabled employees could be encouraged take their usual office equipment home.
Taking steps to protect wellbeing and mental health
Employers owe a duty to protect their employees' mental health as well as physical health. Homeworking can present risks, including feelings of isolation and inability to disconnect. Steps to protect employees' wellbeing could include, for instance, advising them to create a routine, go for a morning walk, have a defined lunch break and mid-morning/afternoon coffee breaks and so on. They could be encouraged to have regular video calls with colleagues, rather than relying entirely on email, and to remain physically active. Employers should also be mindful of anxiety levels; it would be a good time now to signpost what mental health support is on offer for employees.
Working at home is going to become more challenging for parents now UK schools have closed for all but vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Not everyone will be able to work from home in this situation, but employers may be able to give advice and support to those who can. For example, employees could be advised to create work zones, with ideally a separate area for the working parent(s) which is close enough to keep an eye on home-schooling activities while enabling them to make a call without interruptions. Employees could also be encouraged to carve out time to eat meals together, down devices and talk about the day.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.