Homeworker Health and Safety during coronavirus
What should employers be doing to monitor homeworker health and safety during coronavirus? With the recent partial lockdown in various parts of the country, and considering it is now over a year since the UK Government told employers to work from home wherever possible, it is clear that this problem is not going away and many people will be continuing to work from home in the foreseeable future, either full or part time.
This guidance considers:
- What constitutes home working?
- What should employers be doing to monitor staff and meet the law?
Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 contains objectives for employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees. Clearly this includes staff who are working at home on a part-time or full-time basis, and considering what is “reasonably practicable”. Whilst this requirement applied before COVID-19 the majority of people who can work from home are continuing to do so, either full time or part time on a rota scheme and therefore employers must consider the environment in which their teams are working and the equipment they are using.
Other legislation, such as the Provision & Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER), and the Workplace (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations 1992 contain specific obligations for ensuring the equipment is:
- Suitable for the intended use
- Placed in a suitable location
- Workstations and seating is suitable and
- The environment is suitable (lighting, heating, space etc).
The Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 provide specific objectives for employers to ensure that anyone using a laptop/PC etc for a significant amount of their normal work can do so safely. Employers have to ensure that workstation assessments are completed, the work is planned to enable workers to vary their tasks or take other breaks to avoid the accumulation of strain etc. The Schedule to the regulations contain specifications for furniture and equipment.
COVID-19 working from home guidance has been produced by the HSE on what employers should be doing to protect their home workers. However, they have not defined what home working or temporary means. And after four months of working from home we have become aware of people beginning to report symptoms of work-related upper limb disorder (WRULD) , eg back or neck ache, discomfort or cramp in their hands or arms etc.
The HSE guidance, in summary, states that:
- There is no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily
- If working at home on a long-term basis, employers should:
- Provide equipment employees need, eg computer, phone and video-conferencing
- Keep in regular contact, discuss their wellbeing.
The HSE has also produced a toolbox talk which contains general guidance and includes a workstation assessment checklist. However, this has not been tailored for homeworkers and is very similar to an assessment that would be completed in a formal workplace. It does contain though, guidance on good posture and seating etc.
What is a Homeworker during COVID-19?
When advising our clients on policies relating to home-working before COVID-19 we always used these two categories. This was because of the Duty of Care and potential associated costs for provision of equipment etc, that were deemed to be “reasonably practicable”.
|Before COVID-19||During and After COVID-19|
(working from home)
This mirrors the HSE Guidance which states:
For those people who are working at home on a long-term basis, the risks associated with using display screen equipment (DSE) must be controlled. This includes them doing workstation assessments at home.
There is no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily. So in that situation employers do not need to ask them to carry out home workstation assessments. However, employers should provide workers with advice on completing their own basic assessment at home. This practical workstation checklist (PDF)- Portable Document Format may help them.
Whilst the vast majority of people working at home during coronavirus have not undergone any change in their contractual arrangements, it is clear that their home has become a necessary extension to their workplace and a reasonable employer should be:
- Providing basic equipment to enable them to work effectively and reasonably safely
- Monitoring their physical, as well as their emotional and mental wellbeing whilst working at home during COVID-19.
Remember, your homeworker health and safety during coronavirus is an employer’s responsibility
What Should an Employer be Doing?
The first thing that needs to be checked is the equipment and whether the employee has suitable tools (ie computer equipment, phone, videoconferencing etc) to enable them to work at home, connect to the organisation’s systems and communicate with colleagues, suppliers and customers.
Someone looking down at a laptop all day is likely to notice neck/back discomfort after a while. A simple fix as a short-term measure is to guide your employee to place the laptop on some books or a plinth so it is eye level and to provide them with a separate keyboard and mouse so their shoulders, arms and hands can be placed in a comfortable position.
Otherwise your employee may try to fix the problem themselves by sitting in a lower chair as seen in the image below (elbows significantly below the desk) which causes a person to hunch their shoulders. Either way, the end result is discomfort to the user.
If your employee is continuing to work at home you need to consider where they are working and what they are working on. We have seen someone using ironing board for their worksurface, many using a kitchen table), and some working whilst laying on their bed. Whilst your body can adapt to this for short periods the longer term home workers will begin to suffer physical discomfort, as well as frustration, stress and other problems.
Therefore employers should be finding out how their employees are working and if they are experiencing any physical discomfort (as well as emotional/psychological).
Whilst the HSE has not stipulated that homeworker assessments are a specific requirement during coronavirus it is difficult for an employer to determine the suitability of the home environment for work.
If an employee is going to continue to work from home then you should complete an assessment to determine what additional equipment/facilities or support they need to do this safely.
How should a COVID-19 Home assessment be completed?
Clearly, it is not reasonably practicable to visit all your employees’ homes. The HSE has a workstation checklist that can be downloaded but it hasn’t been tailored to adapt for a home environment. So we have produced a simple COVID-19 Homeworker Checklist which can be downloaded from here. If something like this is used, together with photos of the work area so you can see for yourself what the work arrangements are (or your chosen professional assessor), it is possible to gain a better understanding of the conditions in which your employee is working.
And if the worker reports deeper concerns or is experiencing symptoms of upper limb disorder that you cannot easily identify a potential cause and remedy, then you can call us at PHSC:
With over 30 years of experience in occupational safety and health, we have completed these types of assessments remotely and on site from all over the world. A simple checklist with photos and followed up with a video / phone call with the worker by someone who is experienced and has a trained eye is often all that is needed to identify simply improvements.
And if there are no easy remedies which effectively solve the problem, then these workers should be on your priority list to return to the workplace as your premises begin to open again or further time and resource given to ensure their home-work arrangements are not causing them health risks. You may also need in the short term to arrange for a specialist to conduct a home worker assessment at the person’s own home.