Posted by Chris Salmon, co-founder and operations director of Legal Futures Associate Quittance Legal Services
As a result of government recommendations for tackling Covid-19, thousands if not millions of employees across the UK have found themselves unexpectedly working from home for the first time. Some employers will be unfamiliar with how their duty of care extends to homeworkers.
The legal sector has, to some extent, already embraced homeworking. For some firms, the current situation with coronavirus simply means expanding an existing solution to more employees.
Firms that have yet to roll out homeworking may still have a practical plan in place as part of their business continuity plans.
For many employers, however, recent events pose an immediate logistical challenge in getting employees set up for homeworking, whilst minimising business disruption.
In parallel with the technical challenges of providing seamless access to company systems and suitable communications, firms are also advised to review their legal obligations for the safety and wellbeing of employees.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are responsible for the health and safety of homeworkers, as far as is reasonably practicable. This means that, as an employer, you have the same legal duty of care for a homeworker’s health, safety and wellbeing as you would for an employee working on company premises.
Check your employers’ liability insurance
Before you do anything else, you should contact your insurer or broker and check that their employers’ liability insurance covers homeworking. If it does, ask for a copy of the policy terms and review them to ensure that suitable cover is in place.
If your firm is not covered, ask your insurer to amend your policy to include homeworking. Again, you should request a copy of the policy terms to ensure that the cover is adequate.
Unless you have suitable insurance cover in place, your business is exposed if an employee is injured whilst working from home.
Carry out risk assessments
Under the regulations, every employer shall make “a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of his employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work”.
For office workers, this will mean an assessment of the employee’s workstation and general working environment. The risk assessment should consider the desk, chair, lighting, computer, monitor, keyboard and mouse.
In most cases, the employer would not be expected to visit the employee’s home. Given the coronavirus pandemic is the reason for an increase in homeworking at present, a home visit to all employees could be impractical at best. Under such unusual circumstances, employers should consider what can be done remotely to review and monitor homeworkers’ safety.
Employees can carry out a self-assessment under the guidance of the employer. The employee can be provided with a questionnaire to complete about the working environment. The questionnaire should be designed to identify any possible risks as well as any individual requirements.
In the current climate, employers need to move quickly and may not have time to draft the self-assessment. If your firm does not have one, templates are readily available on the web.
As an employer, you are responsible for any equipment you supply.
If you provide your employees with computer or communications equipment, the safety of these devices will be your responsibility. If the employee is injured as a result of defective or inadequate equipment that you supply or approve, you could be held liable.
If the employee, or another member of the employee’s household, trips on a laptop power cable, the employer could be held liable.
Take action to reduce risks
If the self-assessment questionnaire identifies certain risks, it may be necessary for the employer to visit the employee at home. Employees should be advised as to how to mitigate any risk and an ongoing dialogue about the risks should be maintained.
You should also consider the individual needs of employees. The regulations extend to expectant mothers and those working with a disability.
For some people, homeworking is a godsend. The sense of independence and the release from the daily commute can make for a happier and more productive employee. For others, the feeling of isolation can be a challenge.
Under the regulations, the employer’s duty of care extends to mental health.
Until recent events, many people working from home will have chosen to do so and are more likely to be suited to it. Many other employees see work as part of their social framework.
Thankfully, technology now offers a number of communication tools that go some way towards emulating the office environment at home. Now that many people are effectively forced into homework, there remains a risk that people ill-suited to homework will struggle with the lack of social contact.
No one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last. Employers must therefore also take into account longer-term hazards, such as the effects that homeworking can have on stress levels and mental health.
The best way to approach these issues is to regularly consult with employees and to ensure that frequent communication between colleagues and teams occurs.
Taking a more consultative and open-minded approach will produce better outcomes, both in terms of short-term morale and longer-term performance, as we inevitably transition to a new ‘normal’ way of working.