Coronavirus and increased homeworking for office jobs: the risks
The coronavirus has become an issue of major concern for everyone, including employers. As events have progressed, there has been an urgent need for more people to be able to work remotely and business continuity is increasingly essential for employers to maintain and preserve their business’ in the uncertain weeks and months ahead.
The aim of working from home at this time is to minimise the spread of infection and whilst this is clearly a necessity it is worth bearing in mind that homeworking brings with it other possible risks for employees. The risks arising from homeworking must however be assessed in the context that an employer is seeking to eliminate an employee contracting coronavirus in the workplace. Coronavirus is a biological agent and therefore a substance hazardous to health, as defined under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). The primary duty under COSHH is to prevent exposure and homeworking is a measure taken by an employer to comply with this requirement.
Risks for homeworking
Isolation and stress
Many of us will be used to working from home on an ad hoc basis. In the current climate, however, this will become our normal daily working routine. It is important to maintain contact to avoid people feeling isolated or stressed. Fortunately, with the benefit of technology, it is easy to set up regular virtual meetings which enables teams to still come together on a regular basis and be able to air and share any issues being experienced.
The balance between ensuring business continuity and in some cases business survival with the welfare and safety of employees, must be regularly considered and examined, not only in the short term but also in the medium and long term as well. Regular contact with staff will help everyone’s wellbeing.
There will invariably need to be a degree of flexibility In addition to working from home, many will also be faced with child care commitments in the light of school and nursery closures. Businesses need to continue and by allowing workers to work more flexibly, a balance will be achieved.
If the situation is prolonged, home workers may become concerned that their professional development will suffer. Webinars, online training and ensuring regular check-ins with team members will assist in maintaining morale.
Upper limb disorders
Employers owe their employees a duty to ensure their workstations are assessed and any risks identified to be reduced. Where an employee’s work station is altered, it is incumbent on an employer to ensure that a fresh assessment is undertaken.
In the current climate, where there has been a massive drive to enable workers to be able to work from home with the supply and provision of equipment, it is important that employers have regard to their existing obligations and to consider the following:
- It is simply not feasible, nor would it be permitted under the current lockdown, for employers to undertake physical assessments of their work forces home work stations. Online training will empower employees to undertake their own assessments from home.
- Employees can and should be reminded to position their work equipment as ergonomically as they can and to remember to take regular breaks from their screens and their keyboards.
- Employers should check with their employees during this current period to ensure that no-one is experiencing any issues with any upper limb disorders. Training webinars can be issued to ensure that employees are aware of their obligations and to demonstrate that all reasonable steps have been taken by employers to comply with their obligations.
- Ensure that employees have a suitable workstation and that they understand the importance of not working on their lap (whether on a bed, sofa or elsewhere).
Employer duties for homeworking
Employers obligations to their employees continue, even in these difficult times and by way of reminder, the following acts and regulations have application in the main to workers whether office, or, home based:
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – sets out the duties for the health, safety and welfare of employees.
- Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992 – including the need to take regular breaks. (HSE guidance can be found here)
- The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 – to ensure that work equipment is suitable for use.
- Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 – to ensure that staff are provided with PPE where needed.
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 – to include undertaking risk assessments where a reasonable likelihood of injury may occur.
The Workplace (Health Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 do not apply to an employee’s place of residence.
Points to consider
- Ensure that teams continue to work together as collaboratively as possible to maintain positivity and motivation and preserve mental health.
- Employers and their employees need to be prepared to be flexible to ensure that businesses continue, jobs are retained and the risks to all are minimised.
- Employers and their employees need to be aware of and monitor the issues of homeworking to be able to ascertain if any issues need to be addressed, if any equipment can be provided and if there are any training needs which, if fulfilled, would reduce risks to mental and physical health.
- From a practical point of view, employers may need to remind their employees of the need to take breaks, to sit as ergonomically as possible and to make their employers aware of any concerns they have as to their ability to work effectively
It is imperative for employers and their employees to work together at this time whilst not losing sight of the mutual obligations owed to each other.