Legal briefing | Environment & Regulatory |

Homeworking: Health & Safety Considerations, Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates

Overview

Published government guidance and public announcements in light of COVID-19 state that businesses and workplaces should encourage their employees to work at home, wherever possible. As a result, remote working arrangements are now widespread due to the UK COVID-19 management strategy.

Separately, the Government has provided additional guidance for employees in essential work and 'critical services' whereby such employees may continue to go to their places of work or other sites. This remains a fluid area. As such, if you require specific advice on this, please feel free to contact one of the team or your usual Travers Smith contact.

Homeworking: Employers' Obligations

Employers are reminded to continue to address all relevant considerations relating to the protection of the health, safety and welfare of employees working from home (a duty that employers have under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974).

In addition, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service ("ACAS") have provided guidance on working from home as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) (including advice on where an employee refuses to conduct work due to the risk of COVID-19 infection). This guidance provides employers with information on the following:

  • vulnerable people and those at high risk;
  • self-isolation and sick pay obligations;
  • where an employee needs time off work to care for a dependent; and 
  • good practice steps for employers.


Workstation Assessments

Where employees are working from home "temporarily", current guidance by the UK Health and Safety Executive ("HSE") states there is no specific requirement to carry out a workstation assessment, but nonetheless a proportionate, pragmatic and risk-based approach should be taken.


In order to adequately monitor employees in their homeworking environments, businesses may want to consider identifying 'material' risks in the health and safety set-up of the home workstation. Providing appropriate guidance on how to mitigate these risks is recommended (albeit being reflective of the realities we are all currently facing in these extraordinary times). In addition, a targeted risk-assessment procedure could be rolled out to higher risk employees (as set out below).

Obligations to Provide Equipment

In general, there are no specific legal obligations on an employer to provide the equipment necessary for homeworking. The provision of equipment should be determined on a case-by-case basis on grounds of necessity, commerciality and proportionality based on the needs and role of the employee in question. Again, the realities around what can be sourced and provided are likely to limit what can be done during the current lockdown.

Careful consideration should be paid to homeworkers who have a disability, pregnant employees, medical disclosures 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). Businesses should in this case take reasonable steps to accommodate the provision of equipment to allow such employees to safely carry out their job at home.

In addition, there may be practical reasons to provide equipment to staff. These include IT compatibility, as employers may want to ensure that computer equipment that has access to their network is regularly updated to ensure virus protection and warrant correct security measures. Further, employers may seek to provide an employee with a work mobile to ensure they remain connected to the office. Where equipment is provided then there are legal requirements to ensure that equipment is itself safe. Under the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, equipment supplied by the employer must be maintained in good working order and have been inspected. Adequate insurance may also want to be considered for equipment that is provided (be it under an employer or employee's home insurance policy).

Further ACAS guidance on the provision of equipment to employees can be found here.


Good Practice

Business health and safety teams may consider a number of practical steps and guidance that can be circulated to employees in the current situation. For example, ACAS have provided guidance to employers and employees to develop 'good practices' in the homeworking environment. This includes advice on health and safety; equipment and technology; monitoring of systems; employer/employee communications and expenses, as well as a 'checklist for setting up home working'  which can be used by employees.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

Current working arrangements and uncertainty make it likely that both employers and employees are experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety. The ACAS guidance on supporting mental health in the workplace is a useful resource. The guidance addresses the need to increase communication channels between employees and managers and between team members. During a period of remote working, employers should:

  • enhance identification and support for those with signs of mental health;
  • consider policies for any absence required due to mental health; and
  • address the need for training and employee support systems.


Further Health and Safety Executive advice for managers that may have employees who experience mental health difficulties can be found here.


'Homeworking Policy'

Should the current temporary homeworking arrangements continue for a prolonged period of time, businesses may consider creating a clear 'homeworking policy'. This could be used to address health and safety concerns and help determine what resources workers may need. Many organisations may already have detailed policies in place. Full adherence to them may be excessive in many cases, but they will be worth following where appropriate.

In any event, regular communication and guidance on best practice and practical tips to promote safety and well-being are advisable.

 

Final thoughts

The evolving nature of COVID-19 is likely to continue to have an impact on the working structures of businesses across all industry sectors. Initial homeworking arrangements discussed above can be implemented and should be updated and enhanced should businesses choose to prolong their working from home arrangements. Employers, employees and businesses should remain vigilant and continue to review the government and industry body advice for the most detailed and up-to-date health and safety information and guidance.

 

For further information on health and safety guidance for employers, employees and businesses please also review 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.

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to JJ Ball for his contribution to this piece.

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