As of 27th January, COVID-19 restrictions in England have been relaxed considerably. As well as the end of mandatory face coverings and COVID passes for large events, the government has also withdrawn its advice to “work from home if you can”. With slight variation, Scotland and Wales have followed suit.
While remote working is no longer a legal requirement, it is likely to remain a key part of our working culture. It is thought 60% of UK adults worked from home during the first wave of the pandemic, and two thirds believe that it made them more productive. Employers seem to agree, with over 40% planning to embrace hybrid working by 2023.
Like any major change, switching to hybrid working brings with it some significant challenges. Keeping track of remote employees is harder, and this includes their health and safety. You will need to pay close attention to the working conditions of remote employees, to ensure their mental and physical health doesn’t suffer.
What does the law say about remote workers?
Just like office workers, remote workers are covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This makes it your duty to keep remote workers safe “so far as is reasonably practical.”
This is open to interpretation, but the general principle is clear. You should be mindful of the safety of homeworkers, and do everything you reasonably can to keep them healthy and safe. Failure to do this may lead to legal consequences, as a recent case in Germany showed.
A remote worker slipped and injured his spine while walking from his bedroom to his home office. A German court ruled that this was a workplace accident, meaning that the employee was entitled to compensation. It even went as far as classing the walk from bed to desk as a commute, and therefore an “insured work route.”
With different legal frameworks, a similar interpretation may not be likely under UK law. However, in cases where there is persistent negligence, prosecution by HSE is possible.
What are the biggest risks?
Every home office is different, so predicting the risks can be tricky. We don’t think you need to document the risk of getting out of bed or getting fingers trapped in the biscuit tin, however, there are some more serious risks that will crop up more frequently than others. These include:
- Back pain caused by an unsuitable desk or chair
- Wrist injury caused by an incorrectly set up workstation
- Eye strain or headaches caused by faulty or unsuitable display equipment
Remote employees are also vulnerable to mental health issues. Working from home can cause feelings of isolation, leading to low morale or even depression. Stress can also be a major factor, as the blurring of work and home can make it difficult for employees to switch off at the end of the day. These are widespread problems, affecting up to a third of remote workers according to a survey by an international health benefits provider.
How can I keep remote workers safe?
We’re sure you want to do everything you can to protect your employees, wherever they choose to work. There are some simple steps that you can take to keep remote workers safe:
- Carry out a full risk assessment for all remote workers, paying special attention to musculoskeletal injuries and eye strain.
- If necessary, provide home workers with ergonomic chairs, desks or keyboards to help prevent injury.
- Encourage remote workers to take regular breaks.
- Check in regularly with remote employees and make it clear that they can always reach out for support.
- Be sure to include remote workers in social events, both in and out of the office.
- Encourage home workers to use a separate phone or laptop for work which is switched off at the end of the day.
- Avoid calling or emailing remote employees outside of office hours, and make it clear that you do not expect them to respond once the working day is over.
Looking after home workers can be challenging, especially if you are running an office at the same time. If you need help completing your risk assessment, or have any other questions about health and safety for remote employees, don’t hesitate to get in touch.