Employers owe the same duty of care to all staff, whether they are working from the office or from home. However, managing this theoretical duty has suddenly become a practical challenge for many companies.
A critical requirement that employers must observe in relation to homeworkers is the ‘at-home risk assessment’. Failure to do so may see an employer found liable if one of their staff is injured or becomes ill as a result of their remote working conditions.
What the law says
Legislation, including the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, ensures that employers are responsible for the health and safety of homeworking staff. Employers must, therefore, carry out a suitable assessment on a remote worker’s environment, in order to identify and manage risks. This assessment often takes the form of an at-home risk assessment.
The case law on the scope of employers’ duties to homeworkers is still evolving. Employers and HR managers should consider taking a broad approach to an at-home risk assessment. This wider scope could mean considering hazards unique to the home environment, such as the presence of children and even pets.
Although studies show that many workers thrive when working from home, the regulations require that mental health risks may also need to be considered in the assessment.
What should an at-home risk self-assessment check?
In many cases, an at-home risk assessment will be similar to the process used to assess health and safety risk to office workers.
The assessment should seek to ensure that:
- The homeworking environment is safe
- Best practice for safe homeworking is observed
- An audit trail exists that protects both the employee and the company
- Any special needs are identified
- Ongoing monitoring of health and safety occurs
- PPE is provided if required
Specifically, the self-assessment should:
- Draw attention to the company’s health and safety policy and ensure that the employee has read it.
- Assess the overall safety and comfort of the workstation area including whether there are adequate space, lighting and ventilation.
- Assess the positioning of any computer equipment and monitors. The monitor should be at the correct height, positioned to avoid reflection and glare and encourage correct posture. The resolution and font should be set to minimize eyestrain.
- Mitigate the risk of injury from manual handling. If the employee is required to lift or move any equipment, it should be stored safely and manual handling training should be given.
- Identify trip hazards. Are there any trailing cables, loose rugs or floor coverings? Are there any obstructions near, or in the access to the workstation?
- Assess fire risk. Is there an obvious fire risk, such as paper stored near a PC or printer heat vent? Is there an approved smoke alarm and fire exit?
- Identify electrical hazards. Any electrical equipment such as PCs, monitors, printers, phones and lighting should be checked for damage (e.g. exposed or frayed wires). Have you provided the employee with a safe usage policy?
- Address the risk of isolated working. Do working practices seek to emulate a collegial, office environment and aim to reduce feelings of isolation and promote wellbeing? Does the employee have any concerns or reservations about homework and do they know who to speak to about them?
- Ensure that the employee is aware of occupational health best practices, such as taking regular breaks, looking away from the monitor etc.
- Confirm the employee has a suitable first aid kit, and there is someone who can assist in the event of an injury.
How to do a home assessment
HR managers and health and safety reps can create their own self-assessment questionnaire for the homeworker to complete. The assessment form could be adapted from similar material already used for in-office assessments. Alternatively, there are many self-assessment templates available online.
1. Phase one would be a more generic self-assessment template, to ensure the basic risks are promptly addressed.
2. Phase two would involve devising a bespoke self-assessment to fit the circumstances of your company and its workforce and would include a more detailed assessment of at-risk workers, such as those with existing health conditions.
As an alternative to asking employees to complete a questionnaire, some employers (particularly for smaller teams) are experimenting with ‘assisted assessments’ via video call. The employee could use a mobile device to walk their employer through their work setup, allowing for a more detailed assessment.
Although the video call option is more time-consuming, and may not be an option for firms with sudden large numbers of new homeworkers, this approach has two additional benefits:
1. A video assessment helps to normalize video communication between the worker and management, helping to reduce feelings of disconnection and isolation.
2. The call is also more flexible than a checklist and allows for a more holistic assessment of a worker’s health and safety to be carried out.
Apps are available to allow for video calls to be recorded, but the call should not be seen as an alternative to self-assessment paperwork. An assessment form should still be completed, perhaps during the call, to ensure an audit trail is in place.
Whatever method you use, it's critical that both the employer and employee embrace the principle of the assessment, rather than treating it as a box-ticking exercise.
As a priority, the risk assessment must seek to protect employees from the risk of injury and occupational illness. The assessment also exists to protect the firm, ensuring that in the event of a work injury claim, the employers’ liability (EL) insurance is not invalidated. The fitness of the company’s current EL policy should be reviewed to ensure it's sufficient to cover current remote working arrangements.
Although we're all living and working in uncertain times, HR representatives must ensure that the physical safety and mental health of homeworking employees do not become an afterthought.
About the Author
Chris Salmon is the Operations Director of Quittance Legal Services, a national personal injury solicitor panel in the UK. For the past 25 years, the panel has delivered exceptional legal services to customers based throughout England, Wales and Scotland.