Legal briefing | Environment & Regulatory, Health & Safety |

A shift to a more permanent working from home arrangement? Key Health & Safety considerations

Overview

Following the implementation of the UK Government's COVID-19 Recovery Strategy and COVID-19 Secure Guidelines, measures concerning the health and safety ("H&S") and welfare of workers should be at the fore of employer risk mitigation strategies. With Government guidance stating that "for the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible", employers should be considering separate H&S concerns and procedures required to protect employees or workers carrying out activities in the homeworking environment.

In addition, the evidence of a cultural shift to more homeworking arrangements can be seen following announcements by companies such as Amazon, Google and Twitter regarding extended or even permanent homeworking arrangements. Such arrangements will require a careful assessment of the H&S considerations in the homeworking environment.

Employers already have obligations to assess the risks from working from home under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, yet with homeworking regimes gradually moving from temporary to more permanent arrangements, employers' obligations are likely to become amplified, as further considered below.   

For recent commentary on H&S considerations for companies planning on returning to their physical office spaces in the coming months, please see our latest briefing here.

HOMEWORKING: INCREASED RISKS

Homeworking set-ups

As homeworking moves from a "temporary" status to a more prolonged period, there is a heightened risk that homeworking stations or setups are not fit for purpose in meeting requirements relating to devices, display screen equipment ("DSE") and ergonomic needs. Employees working from home for a protracted period are more susceptible to developing certain strain injuries resulting from an inadequate homeworking environment or unsuitable workstation. In addition, without face-to-face or on-site supervision and the possibility of reduced internal welfare protocols, it may be more difficult to recognise signs of stress or mental welfare in workers who are not in the workplace over increased periods of time.

Accidents and injuries

While homeworking is likely to be low risk for the vast majority of employees or workers, there is still a risk of accidents or injuries occurring whilst working at home. Employers should be aware that in the event of an accident or injury occurring during the course of work, reporting obligations may arise under The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 ("RIDDOR"). This regime requires employers to report certain serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences ('near misses'), including occupational strain injuries, exposure to chemicals, fractures, sight reduction and burns.

Employers should adapt or implement internal procedures for reporting such accidents that could occur on or off-site to assist with any RIDDOR notification that may be required. To mitigate the risks associated with possible injury, the UK Health and Safety Executive ("HSE") have advised that homeworkers should have “access to adequate first aid facilities” (for low risk homeworking activities, simple first aid 'home' kits or components should suffice).

"LONG-TERM" HOMEWORKING: EMPLOYERS' OBLIGATIONS

Where employees are working from home temporarily, current guidance issued by the HSE states that there is no specific requirement to carry out a workstation assessment. For those working from home on a long-term basis, however, a workstation assessment must be carried out in order to assess the risks associated with using DSE and certain equipment.

It would be prudent for employers considering transitioning their workforce to a more permanent homeworking arrangement to take proactive steps in carrying out home workstation assessments. Employers should consider the need to provide equipment to staff working at home on a long-term basis to prevent them developing injuries, with careful attention paid to homeworkers who have a disability, pregnant employees and those with other tailored needs. In these cases, the provision of equipment may be required as a 'reasonable adjustment' under s.20 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to take reasonable steps to avoid putting certain employees at a disadvantage and allow them to safely carry out their jobs at home.

The HSE states that employers can provide workers with advice on completing their own basic risk assessment at home, and have provided a practical workstation checklist which can be used to feedback information to employers. This checklist covers the following areas:

  • keyboard, mouse, trackball set-up;
  • display screen use and set-up;
  • software suitability; and
  • furniture; 

In addition, the chief executive of the HSE has stated that "companies would need to make sure their staff had the 'right kind of kit' to prevent issues such as back injuries sustained from hunching over laptop[s]" and added that the HSE would be monitoring measures put in place by firms to help staff adjust. The HSE further stated that "if people need to provide particular kit and facilities for them to work from home safely and without injuring themselves, then ultimately they will need to do that and we will take enforcement action if they are unable to do that or choose not to."

Practical steps to be considered to mitigate H&S risks:

  • allowing homeworkers to take more breaks;
  • ensuring homeworkers have adequate first aid provisions;
  • providing guidance on promoting mental health and wellbeing;
  • ensuring that insurance coverage extends to employer equipment provided to those working from home;
  • ensuring data protection compliance is extended and reinforced in the homeworking environment; and
  • providing increased channels of communication and notification for employees.

Overview

In addition, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service ("ACAS") have provided guidance for employers and employees on working from home as a result of COVID-19 which can be reviewed here. A general ACAS 'Homeworking – guide for employers and employees' can be found here.

For further information in relation to the provision of equipment, mental health and wellbeing and the consideration of implementing a 'Homeworking Policy', please read our earlier briefing here.  

CONCLUSION

The continued impact of COVID-19 and the cultural shift away from traditional office-based working models is likely to increase the period of time spent working at home by employees and workers. Employers should carefully consider the need to implement additional risk assessments in discharging their duty of care in order to make homeworking environments safe and suitable in the long-term.

For further information on health and safety guidance for employers and businesses, please refer to our COVID-19 briefing paper.

Please note this briefing does not constitute legal advice and no reliance should be taken upon it. We must also stress that this is a rapidly evolving area and as such this briefing only provides a summary of general guidance available at the time of writing. Please continue to check the latest Government guidance.  Of course, if you require any formal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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