The current Coronavirus ‘crisis’ is prompting lots of advice on getting more people to work at home. This sounds like a good idea, but it should not be implemented until it has been properly assessed in terms of viability and employee wellbeing. Health and safety for homeworkers can be a little different than for employees at an employer’s base, but it should be remembered that employers have a duty of care for all their employees, and the requirements of all of the health and safety legislation apply to homeworkers.
Homeworking is a term covering a variety of arrangements. They include:
- Office-related roles where: some employees work almost entirely at home, apart from carrying out regular or occasional duties/meetings at the office or externally, or, visiting customers/clients etc.
- Some employees split their time between working at home a few days a week (depending on the agreement with the employer), with the rest of the time spent in the office or with clients.
- Other employees work from home only occasionally.
- Travel-related roles where the job entails a lot of journeys and the employee’s home is used as a base.
More than a third of homeworkers are employees, while the rest are self-employed, or work in the family business. The number of homeworkers is predicted to carry on rising, particularly in office-related work. The trend presents challenges, and this guide aims to help both employers and employee deal with the implications.
Factors contributing to the rise in the number of people working from home include:
- Employers looking to cut overheads of business rates, rents and utility bills by reducing office space.
- Technology making it easier for some roles to be performed remotely.
- More employees asking for some flexibility in where they work, and the hours they work – both inside and outside of the organisation’s core hours. This is largely so they can better manage their personal lives.
- Increasing numbers of employees with responsibilities caring for family, including the elderly.
- The rising costs of commuting and that reducing commuting can be a ‘green strategy. Homeworkers are less affected by weather or travel disruption.
- Government policies encouraging people with disabilities back into work.
- Employers reporting the success of homeworking.
While many staff who work from home say they have a better work-life balance and improved job satisfaction, these outcomes can also play a part in employers reporting increased productivity from homeworking. Output from employees working from home often improves due to fewer interruptions than in the office. There can be more commitment and loyalty from employees who value working from home.
Negative considerations for employers include:
- Management of staff: Supervising homeworkers can be more difficult than overseeing staff in the office. A Manager and homeworker are likely to have to work harder to build trust between them. It can take more effort for Managers and colleagues to communicate with homeworkers, and vice versa.
- Development of homeworkers: While many homeworkers are as ambitious to develop as staff in the office, and can become settled in a position and not put themselves forward for opportunities. Ensure they know how they can develop.
- Extra costs: Initially, there may be an outlay in setting up homeworking. However, savings from reduced overheads should be greater in the long run.
- Employees who are carers: Employers should make it clear that homeworking is not a substitute for suitable care arrangements, that dependants need to be looked after by someone other than the employee when they are working, and that care arrangements should be in place to cover the time when the employee is working.
- The employee’s wellbeing: The employer must take overall responsibility for assessing health and safety. More later.
Homeworking works best where the needs of the employer and the employee coincide.
Common Hazards associated with Homeworking
Many replicate normal office hazards, but some are unique to the home environment. Most homes are not designed with home working in mind. Hazards include:
- Manual handling – such as carrying heavy and awkward boxes up the stairs.
- Incorrectly using work equipment – such as badly located computer screens.
- Using electrical equipment – are cables being dragged along floors due to poorly located sockets?
- Fire safety – is the working area higher than the ground floor?
You, as an employer, are responsible for the maintenance of any electrical equipment supplied to the homeworker as part of their work. But you are not responsible for the homeworker’s domestic electrical system, such as electrical sockets.
Employers should be aware that inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive have the right to visit homeworkers in the home, but it is very unlikely to happen.
Risk Assessments – their application to Homeworkers
The employer has a duty of care to its employees, and should get a risk assessment carried out before homeworking can be approved. It should set out what will happen if the risk assessment identifies concerns, including who will make and pay for changes to bring the home up to standard, and what timescale will be allowed.
It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure someone carries out a risk assessment to check whether the home workplace’s ventilation, temperature, lighting, space, chair, desk and computer, or any other kind of work station, and floor are suitable for the tasks the homeworker will be asked to do. Invariably this is done by the employee with a suitable risk assessment checklist.
The employer is responsible for the equipment it supplies, but it is the responsibility of the employee to rectify any flaws in the home highlighted by the assessment.
Once the home workplace is passed as safe, it is the responsibility of the homeworker to keep it that way, and take reasonable care of their health and safety. However, they should tell the employer if any precautions turn out to be inadequate.
- The assessment must consider the activities of the homeworker, and any related hazards. Procedures must be put in place to prevent harm to the homeworkers and others affected, e.g. family members and visitors.
- You may need to visit the homeworkers to properly undertake the risk assessment, especially where higher risk work is involved. Photographs or video pictures may make this visit unnecessary.
- Appropriate measures must be put in place to remove/reduce identified risks. Such measures must be written down if the you have 5 or more employees.
- The risk assessment must be reviewed periodically to ensure the adopted measures remain adequate.
- The risk assessment must take into consideration specific needs of employees, such as those who are new or expectant mothers. Risks include those which relate to an unborn child as well as to the mother.
Possible Health Problems
The predominant concern is the ability to detect problems at an early stage, especially if the homeworker is permanently based at home. The usual conditions, such as back problems, eye strain and headaches often feature. Another matter to look out for is psychological conditions.
The following provides a brief guide to homeworking for office staff, and does not include people working on ‘machinery’ at home. A number of potential control measures to reduce the risk of somebody being harmed are also identified. There may be additional hazards and control measures that need to be considered. In addition, you should consider whether vulnerable people, such as expectant mothers or disabled workers need additional consideration and control measures.
Display Screen Equipment
Homeworkers are likely to be vulnerable to upper limb strain from seating position or repetitive movement of using keyboards.
- Machinery is checked regularly and kept in a condition that does not cause harm;
- Provision of suitable seating;
- Consideration to the supply of an ergonomic keyboard and vertical mouse;
- Homeworkers should take regular breaks.
Homeworker and family members may be affected by electric shock or fire.
- Domestic electrical system is adequate for the electrical equipment provided;
- Plugs are correctly wired and maintained;
- Electrical leads, wires and cables are appropriately covered and not damaged;
- Plugs, leads, wires and cables are checked regularly and kept in good condition;
- Circuit breakers are installed;
- Smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are provided.
Manual Handling of Office Equipment
The homeworker and their family members may need to install or move heavy furniture and be susceptible to musculoskeletal strain/injury, particularly to the back.
- Avoid heavy, bulky loads or materials;
- Avoid repetitive handling – vary the work to allow muscles to rest;
- When lifting is necessary, they must be trained in good handling techniques.
Slips, Trips and Falls
Homeworkers and their family members are also subject to the hazard of physical injury, especially if their work-space doubles up as living space.
Typical control measures:
- Keep work areas tidy and clear of obstructions or objects lying;
- Provision of appropriate storage cupboards/containers;
- Arrange furniture in order to avoid trailing wires;
- Ensure mats are securely fixed and do not have curling edges.
Homeworking may lead to mental health conditions.
Typical control measures:
- Regular face-to-face contact between the employer and home worker through regular face time video conferencing;
- Same information and support for homeworkers as on-site workers, including information on social events;
- Facilitate communication with other home workers and on-site workers;
- Homeworkers should take regular breaks, including chatting to colleagues!
The Social Side
People, by nature, are social beings and even the most anti-social remote workers may soon find themselves feeling lonely and alienated. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the mentality that’s commonplace toward remote workers, which leads to a lack of trust, feelings of being an outsider. Being away from the main office means that remote workers don’t have the same access to a support network that on-site staff do. So, when they have a problem, either personal or work-related, they won’t have anyone to turn to. Some employees may also struggle to balance their work and home life, as there will be no separation between the two. These two responsibilities often get in each other’s way, with problems that could have been put off until the individual got home from work now staring them in the face all day.
If staff are working away from the office, it’s only natural that their employer will want to monitor them more closely than they would on-site employees. But if remote workers feel pressure to always be online and available, this could have a damaging impact on their mental health. Employers should make concerted efforts to include remote workers, whether that is by including them in group emails, or inviting them to join team meetings remotely via conference call. Inclusion efforts should extend to out-of-work activities, ensuring remote workers are invited to team social events which can help boost morale and foster a sense of camaraderie between colleagues.
Employees need to feel part of a team. It is the collaboration with others, and the ability to see the impact of your efforts that really motivates people, and keeps them engaged with their role and the business. The right kind of communication is key to overcoming the trials and tribulations of virtual working. Employers need to put the right structures in place, such as scheduled video calls and regular team-building meetups to help rapport. Managers need to lead by example and create a culture where those homeworkers feel valued.
But it cuts both ways. Everyone needs to think about what makes them productive, happy and successful in everyday life, and try to replicate this in a remote setting – whether this ranges from taking a walk at lunch time, going to the gym, ringing a friend or having lunch with a partner/friend.
Controlling the Risks
The Health and Safety Executive appears to take a relatively low-key approach to what it terms low risk environments so employers need to develop their own approaches based on realistic risk assessment.
Our Consultants would be pleased to advise you on any element of the issues arising from this newsletter.