Employers' health and safety obligations to home workers
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
In only a few days, it will be a year since the first lockdown was rolled out across the UK and millions of people suddenly found themselves working from home. However, it was not just a culture shock for them; their employers had to think on their feet as what would normally take weeks of preparation and planning had to happen virtually overnight.
Employers learned very quickly about the implications of homeworking employees: from mental health issues caused by isolation to problems with data security, and particularly the legal aspects of health and safety when an employee is not working on the company premises.
Now, the government has announced their roadmap out of lockdown, and it’s hoped that workplaces will be able to reopen as the spring passes and summer begins. However, widespread opening of businesses doesn’t necessarily mean that offices will be packed again.
For many employers, a year’s enforced homework has shown that there is an alternative to 100% attendance at company premises; remote working, video conferencing, blended working patterns, all hint at home working being a significant part of working life for the foreseeable future.
With this in mind, it is important for employers to stay abreast of what the law requires regarding the health and safety of employees, no matter where they do their work.
What must employers do?
Under section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees.
Employers must conduct a risk assessment of their employees’ work activities, including any work from home.
Under the law, a risk assessment must be ‘suitable and sufficient’.
Currently, employers will not be able to carry out a risk assessment of employees’ home premises, but they should circumvent this with detailed information about working safely at home and asking the employee to carry out a self-assessment of their workspace and equipment. If that risk assessment highlights changes that are necessary to ensure the homeworking environment is safe and healthy, the employer must make sure those changes are implemented.
With homeworking for many likely to continue even once the lockdown restrictions are relaxed, risk assessments that have already been carried out should be reviewed regularly to ensure any changes in circumstances or environment are taken into consideration.
Display Screen equipment (DSE)
It is definitely worth considering the amount of time that employees are spending on display screen equipment. While a meeting held in an office environment will give attendees the opportunity to vary their visual focus, there is an expectation with an online meeting that participants will be focussed on the screen at all times. As some meetings can take well over an hour and some employees may have several meetings a day, this can increase the risk of eye strain and other associated problems. Given that many employees will have been working from home and using DSE in this manner for nearly a year, it may be worth asking employees to carry out an assessment so that reliable data can be obtained.
What must employees do?
Employees have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety at work, and this includes the homeworking environment. Homeworking employees need to keep in regular contact with their manager and let them know about
any physical or mental health and safety risks;
any changes to working arrangements in the light of altered circumstances.
Regular communication can help to identify problems at a nascent stage and find a workable and mutually satisfactory solution.
Office equipment and homeworking expenses
Employers are not required by law to provide their employees with equipment for homeworking (except where that equipment is part of a reasonable adjustment for disability – see below). However, ACAS guidance does say that it is important for employees to have the equipment they need for homeworking. The range of approaches taken by employers is wide and includes lending employees the equipment they already use at the workplace (for example, laptops, additional screens, ergonomic chairs) and reimbursing reasonable expenses for setting up a homeworking area.
Taking such an approach can show that employers are discharging their duty of care for the health and safety of employees, which can stand them in good stead if a claim is ultimately made against them.
Given the speed of the adaptations forced upon employers in March 2020, the solutions adopted at that time were likely to be very ad hoc, but with nearly a year in which to adapt and review working practices, employers should have established a policy to set out the obligations that both they and their employees have when it comes to homeworking equipment and expenses.
If the employer does supply their employees with equipment to use at home, they should ensure that it is
suitable for purpose,
maintained in good working order, and
Of course, during the pandemic, with the social distancing restrictions that ensued, it was very difficult, if not impossible for employers to institute and maintain an inspection regime.
Therefore, the burden of inspection fell to employees to carry out, albeit with support and instruction from the relevant department of the employer. Now, as restrictions are lifted and access to employees’ homes becomes easier, inspections can be carried out by the employer.
Any equipment that is supplied to employees working from home needs to be covered under the employer’s insurance. In some circumstances, this may not be possible and so the employee may need to include the equipment under their home insurance, with the offer from the employer to cover any extra premium required to provide extra cover.
Disabilities and reasonable adjustments
If an employee is disabled, then providing them with equipment (or reimbursing them for expenses incurred in obtaining and installing that equipment) could be classed as a reasonable adjustment under section 20 of the Equality Act 2010. By law, the employer must pay for any reasonable adjustments made.
Increased expenses from homeworking
For many employees, working from home will incur increases in the usage of electricity/gas and internet connection. Employers do not have to contribute towards the increased expenses of employees who are working from home, although some employers may choose to do so.
If they decide to take that step, then a policy needs to be drafted and implemented so that all employees in that situation are treated equally.
Kenneth Cook, H&S Advisor at rradar