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Enforced homeworking during the coronavirus crisis – employers’ health and safety obligations

02 April 2020

On 23 March 2020, the government announced that everyone was required to stay at home for at least three weeks, unless they have work which “absolutely” cannot be done at home. This article explains an employer’s health and safety responsibilities towards this significant group of temporary homeworkers during the enforced period of homeworking.

The context for homeworking has shifted dramatically. Until a few weeks ago, it 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.

Assessing homeworking risks

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 (DSE), including laptops used for prolonged periods, 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 employees are working temporarily from home. In these exceptionally challenging times, however, employers are unlikely to be required to approach things in the usual way - not least because it isn’t currently possible for them to visit employees’ homes or for employees to access the workplace to take equipment home if needed. Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on regulating occupational health during the coronavirus outbreak acknowledges this, stating that it will take a flexible and proportionate account of the risks and challenges arising from the pandemic.

Employers should still ensure the home environment is adequately assessed and take measures to control risk. Many employees will be “making do” with their current set-up at home, which may be less than ideal, and employers should consider how best to identify and minimise risk in these circumstances.

Reducing risks and providing information

The HSE’s guidance on protecting home workers states that there is no increased risk from DSE work for those working from home temporarily, so employers do not currently need to undertake a full home workstation assessment. Nonetheless, it would be advisable to provide guidance and information on health and safety risks arising from homeworking and ask employees to assess risk in general terms (including in relation to DSE-related problems).

This approach is supported by the HSE guidance suggesting that employers could provide employees with advice on completing their own basic assessment at home, which 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 effects of homeworking with a sub-optimal set-up will increase the longer the period of homeworking continues.

An employer has no legal obligation to provide the equipment necessary for homeworking, although it would be sensible to pay for and provide equipment if the employee cannot work otherwise. The government’s social distancing guidance encourages employers to take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, including providing suitable IT and equipment to enable remote working. Employers should provide equipment or flexibility for employees who are identified as being at risk (see below). 

Keeping up to date with guidance

Employers should regularly check the HSE’s dedicated coronavirus area, which contains their latest information and advice, including in relation to homeworkers. 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 also find useful.

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.

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.

In addition, employees 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 and should put procedures in place to keep in direct contact to pick up on any signs of stress as early as possible. It would also be a good time to signpost what mental health support is on offer for staff.

Working at home has become more challenging for parents now that schools have closed. 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 advice Lewis Silkin is giving its own employees on safeguarding their wellbeing as we work from home is available here.

For further guidance on responding to coronavirus and to download our FAQS for employers, please visit our dedicated Covid-19 hub.

 

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