Whose responsibility is it to protect from ‘workplace’ injuries when the workplace is home?
Although the Workplace (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations 1992 do not apply to domestic premises, if an employee is working from home, employers still have a duty to do whatever is reasonably practicable to protect the health and safety of their employees. However, employees aren’t completely off the hook. They also have an obligation to take care of their own health and safety and highlight any employment-related dangers to their employer.
What sort of injuries are we talking about?
For most home workers who were previously office based, there are two main risks. The first is associated with using display screen equipment for long periods of time, such as eye strain, back pain and repetitive strain injury.
The second is the significant risk of injury to your employee’s mental health. The pandemic has thrown a new spotlight on mental health, which is just as important as your employee’s physical health. Home working can lead to employees feeling isolated and also to an excessive blurring of work and home life such that employees feel that they can’t ever “switch off” from work.
What sort of legal risks are there to employers – both legal and other (reputational damage/poorer productivity/etc…)? And are employers facing a tidal-wave of claims?
An employer is expected to provide employees with the means to take reasonable care and maintain the appropriate equipment for them to do their work at home. An employee must then ensure that the policies are implemented correctly. Therefore, an employer will only generally only be responsible if an injury or accident which occurred whilst working from home, if they have not taken reasonable care of their employee’s safety.
While of course there are legal risks, you have much better incentive to look after your employees’ health and safety than dodging claims. A happy, healthy workforce is a more productive workforce. In 2019, a University of Oxford study found that workers are 13% more productive when they are happy. And that’s not because happy workers are able to work longer hours – they just did more work in the time they had available than their less happy colleagues.
What can HR do to reduce the risk – both of actual harm and of legal claims?
Physical health: In addition to sharing the company’s health and safety policies, ideally employers should also have a policy on working from home. They must also conduct risk assessments with their employees. In an ideal world that would involve a physical inspection, however that is unrealistic during lockdown. Therefore, employers should ask employees to complete risk assessment questionnaires, and will need to satisfy themselves that their work place is suitable and ensure they have the right equipment as well as enough light, ventilation, IT training and space to work safely.
The employee would then be responsible for correcting any problems in the home which have been identified. However, employers might want to help their employees to create a dedicated workspace. In particular, you may be able to lend them equipment currently not in use at your normal premises, such as office chairs and second screens.
Mental health: Employers will also need to ensure that their employees feel supported, are not being ignored and have a clear level of understanding of what is expected of them while working from home. Employers should try and foster a culture of openness and of talking about mental health.
Unlike most physical injuries, a decline in mental health is invisible and can take many forms. You often won’t know about it unless the employee in question tells you. Talking about your own mental health can still be a big taboo in the workplace and so you should try your best to break that barrier down. You might, for example, arrange for some staff to be trained as mental health first aiders. You could also encourage your senior managers to lead by example and share their own experiences of mental health.
If employees feel that they can’t or shouldn’t talk about their mental health at work, then it’s likely that the first you’ll know about any problems is when matters become intolerable for the employee and they are signed off work with “stress”. However, if employees feel able to raise the fact that they are stressed or suffering from other mental ill health at an early stage, then you can take positive action to help them. Being able to take action at an early stage to support your employees will not only help employees who need it to manage their mental health, but also minimise the risk to you of stress at work and discrimination claims.
Insurance: Employers should also check their insurance policies and ensure that they are still covered for losses arising from damage to any of their equipment or any injuries caused from working at home, if the injury occurred in the course of the employee’s employment and can be attributable to that employment.
Read Greg Clark’s comments here: https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/long-reads/articles/employers-health-safety-responsibilities-remote-workers