Covid-19: Workplace health and safety rights and working from home
How has health and safety in the workplace changed during the Covid-19 pandemic? And what are your legal rights? Tilly Bailey & Irvine Solicitors explain.
Over the last 12 months the working world has changed beyond recognition and in particular it has changed the way in which we work. For those employees who are still working, their working environment has migrated from the office to the dining room table. Employees are now acclimatising to this new way of operating to maintain productivity. However, employers must be mindful of their ongoing duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees.
It is not surprising that health and safety considerations may well have been overlooked by employers given the speed at which the move to remote working came about as well as many employee related issues that they had to contend with including the complexities of furlough.
Health and Safety in the Workplace
However, employers should still be aware of their obligations under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. Under this Act employers must conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of all the work activities carried out by the employees, including home workers, to identify hazards and to assess the degree of risk.
Once the home place is passed as safe it is the responsibility of the employee to ensure it is kept safe and that they take reasonable care of their health and safety. Otherwise if an employee suffers an injury and no risk assessment has been carried out they could potentially bring a personal injury claim against their employer arguing the employers breach of duty of care towards them. Given the current circumstances and the practical difficulties in entering the homes of employees during the lockdown it would simply not be feasible for employers to carry out a full risk assessment of an employees home working space.
However, there are still steps employers can take to ensure health and safety risks have at least been considered.
For example, employers could ask employees to undertake a self assessment of their work space and then determine whether there are any issues under the employers control which can be addressed and mitigate any health and safety risk. This could go as far as offering to purchase reasonable office equipment for the employees. Employers should try to establish that employees feel able to work from home safely with the right equipment to do so.
Alternatively, employers could send a communication to employees and encourage them to contact their line manager if they have any concerns about their home working set up. The communication could also:
- Inform employees that are working from home that they have the same health and safety duties as other staff. They must take reasonable care of their own health and safety and anyone else who might be affected by their acts or omissions.
- Remind them that they cannot have face to face meetings in their home with customers and must not give any suppliers or customers their home address or telephone number
- Inform employees that they must use their knowledge, experience and training to identify and report any health and safety concerns to their line manager. If an employer has any documents or training set out for example how an employee should sit at a desk or identifying risks in their posture or checking lighting levels, ventilation or temperature controls are adequate these should also be circulated together with health and safety and/or home working policy.
In addition to the physical challenges of working from home employers must also be aware of the psychological challenges of working in isolation particularly during long periods of lock down and consider how they can support employees to combat potential loneliness. Employers should encourage employees to do the following to maintain their wellbeing:
- Create a routine and stick to it
- Take regular breaks from the screen and talk to the people they live with or phone friends and family.
- Get up and move ie get out of the house if they can for some fresh air and sunshine.
- Work around others (although there are considerations of confidentiality) to maintain some human interaction.
- Make use of facetime, skype or video to have virtual meetings and chats with colleagues.
Employers should also consider the needs of individual members of staff to ensure they comply with any duties they have towards those individuals for example making reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities. This is particularly important given the mental health impact of isolation and employers should reach out to those with additional needs.
From a practical perspective employers should also check the details of their insurance to ensure they are covered for an employee who is working from home if they are using the employers business equipment.
Finally, a number of employers will have furloughed staff and those members of staff may not be working. Employers should be mindful that those members of staff are still employees whose employment rights continue and are still owed a duty of care. The best practice would see employers checking in with employees to encourage them to continue taking care of their mental health and wellbeing in times when they are remaining indoors without a work routine.
This path new to all is affecting all aspects of our lives. They are no doubt causing anxiety for employees. Employers should invest the time in connecting with their employees offering reassurance and maintaining regular communications (whether by virtual coffee breaks or group calls) to ensure strong employer relationships are nurtured even though we are all apart.