Safeguarding homeworkers’ health and safety

Elissa Dennis
18th June 2020
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Over the past few months, we’ve written extensively about how employers can help their employees work effectively from home. An important consideration for employers is how to protect the health and wellbeing of their workforce while they are based remotely. This is not just a moral responsibility and the right thing to do, but also a legal requirement.

Chris Salmon, co-founder and director of Quittance Legal Services explains exactly what health and safety policies employers need to be aware of.

With advances in video conferencing, project management and team assessment tools, homeworking was already on the rise before COVID-19 hit. Social distancing and lockdown measures have forced organisations to rush into homeworking.

Many office-based businesses are now considering a more permanent move to homeworking. Given the sudden nature of the homeworking transition, however, there is a risk that companies fail to recognise their exposure. Homeworking policies intended for short-term, ad hoc use could be inadequate for the task ahead. Understandably, policies may also have been poorly administered in the early days of lockdown.

Whether your business is shifting to longer-term remote working or contingency planning for a “second wave”, now is the time to refresh and revise homeworking health and safety policies.

Homeworking best practice

Homeworking best practice is set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the US, and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK.

UK law treats homeworkers no differently than other employees, and employers must comply with a broad set of regulations concerning homeworkers’ health and safety. In the US, an employer’s duties towards homeworkers varies from state to state, and the OSHA’s guidance on homeworkers is still evolving.

Homeworking hazards

Studies show that more accidents occur in the home than anywhere else. Both employers and homeworkers underestimate health and safety risks in the home, and often fail to manage the additional hazards that homeworking brings.

Homeworking hazards not only put the employee at risk of injury, but also other members of the household, including children and pets.

The extent to which employers are legally liable for injuries to others caused by the homeworker’s setup varies on jurisdiction, but the safer course of action is to take the widest possible view. You should consider what circumstances could cause harm, and to protect anyone who could be at risk.

Homeworking hazards can be broken down into three categories: those causing physical injuries, occupational health issues and work-related illness, and mental health risks.

Physical injuries

Of the three categories of risk, this is the most obvious. Despite this, some hazards that can cause physical harm are regularly overlooked. Hazards include:

  • Trip hazards caused by trailing power cables, document boxes and office equipment
  • Fire hazards caused by older, dusty equipment, overloaded extension cords and paper files
  • Lifting and carrying injuries caused by moving office furniture and file boxes without suitable training

Occupational illness

If an employee is homeworking for only a short period, the risk of occupational illness is often overlooked. When working for longer periods from home, work-related illnesses can cause lasting harm. These conditions will affect an employee’s work, and their physical and mental wellbeing more generally.

Occupational health risks include:

  • Back pain caused by poor posture or unergonomic furniture
  • Eye strain resulting from monitor issues or failing to take regular breaks
  • Carpal tunnel and other repetitive strain injuries

It is vital that precautions are taken to manage the risks of occupational illnesses. Once symptoms are severe enough for someone to seek a diagnosis, much of the harm is already done, and it can take a long time to recover. In some cases, injuries can lead to long-term chronic pain.

Mental health

Many workers thrive when working from home. Without the right support, however, some staff do not.

As with occupational illness, mental health issues can be hard to identify at an early stage, before they become debilitating. The challenge is particularly acute regarding homeworkers, who are not only harder to passively monitor but also may be at greater risk.

Factors that can cause or amplify homeworkers’ mental health issues include:

  • Loneliness
  • The stress of working in sub-optimal conditions at home
  • A lack of familiar support from co-workers or management

Employers must also account for the fact that coronavirus is affecting employees’ lives in many ways outside of work. Family and friends may be sick, school closures will have created childcare worries, and other family members’ income may be affected by the pandemic.

Even those employees that you may not normally consider “at risk” could find their mental health affected, and no one should be exempt from measures taken to support mental health wellbeing.

Assessment, monitoring and management

Self-assessment questionnaires are a well-established tool to assess homeworker health and safety remotely. Employers are increasingly also using video calls or recordings to assess a worker’s home setup for hazards.

Whatever approach your business takes, it’s important to recognise both the underlying purpose of the assessment, to safeguard workers, and the need for ongoing management.

Time to reassess

Workers who hurriedly set up their laptop on the kitchen table when they started homeworking will have, in the intervening weeks, evolved their work environment. An initial safety assessment would no longer be valid.

Whether or not a self-assessment was carried out with new homeworkers at the start of lockdown, you should consider revising the questionnaire and reassessing. Work with staff to ensure the assessment is fit for purpose and reflects the reality of their current setup.

Managing risks

Wherever reasonably possible, risks should be removed entirely. For example, if a frayed extension cord is dangerous, replace it.

Where risks cannot be removed, they must be managed. Management encompasses a wide range of solutions, from providing office furniture at the appropriate height, to health and safety training on the importance of good posture and regular breaks.

Health and safety management shouldn’t be treated as a one-off job. Workers should be encouraged to follow guidance and give feedback where problems arise. Employers must listen, and ensure that steps taken to manage risks and monitor compliance are effective.

Creating a culture of homeworking safety

Workers should be encouraged to take an active part in their health and safety. Encourage employees to report concerns and discuss ideas for improvements. Make it clear to staff, wherever they’re working, that you or the company’s health and safety rep is available for a formal or informal chat, by phone, chat app, email or video call.

This virtual open door policy helps to set an open, friendly and collaborative tone for your company's homeworking culture. As mentioned above, it’s easy for remote workers to feel isolated, but apps like Zoom, Skype, Slack and Whatsapp make it easy for businesses to emulate some of the collegial atmosphere of the office.

Beyond health and safety compliance

Whatever jurisdiction’s rules apply, employers are strongly recommended to ensure they both comply with the letter of the law, but also embrace its spirit.

Health and safety self-assessments, virtual “open door” policies, and other measures all help to safeguard workers’ physical and mental health. When handled in a structured but flexible and consultative way, these measures will also help to build a stronger team with a greater sense of shared responsibility. Employees can be confident that the company “has their back”. Freed from managing safety issues and complaints on an ad hoc basis, employers can spend more time focusing on productivity and growth.

Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services. Chris has played key roles in the shaping and scaling of a number of legal services brands and is a regular commentator in the legal press.