Working from Home - H&S Considerations
For many of our clients, COVID-19 has turned their homes, and the homes of many of their employees into place of work and many employers are scratching their heads about what this means from a health and safety perspective. Are they now responsible for every employee’s ‘workplace’ even when they have no control over the employee’s home?
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA), employers as PCBU’s, have a duty to ensure workers are not put at risk by the work they do or by their workplace. Workplace is defined very broadly in the HSWA as a place where work is being carried out, or is customarily carried out, for a business or undertaking, and includes any place where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work. So if your employees are required to work from home, their home is considered a workplace and as an employer you have a responsibility to eliminate or minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable. Those last 6 words are critical as it means, as an employer, you can take into account the current circumstances and the level of control you have over that ‘workplace’ when thinking about what is reasonable and what is practicable, clearly the level of control an employer can have over the health and safety of an employee who is working from the employer's premises is greater than the control the employer can have over an employee working from their home.
But lets not forget that your employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety, and given they have greater control over their home, they are best placed to make any necessary changes to their work environment to ensure it is healthy and safe.
So, what are some reasonably practicable things you can do to support your employee’s as well as meeting your legal obligations to ensure remote workers remain healthy and safe;
Workstation Set-up - Chances are your employees will not have the correct ergonomic equipment or workstation set-up in their home. If this prolongs, it can lead to awkward posture and increase the risk of developing ergonomic related injuries or musculoskeletal disorders. You can prevent such risks from arising by providing equipment to take home or useful resources that can help guide workers to correctly set up their work area at home. Be inventive! It’s about what’s practical, not what’s perfect – employees can make do with things that are around their home, such as using old text or reference books as a monitor stand or a footrest. Ask that employees send you a photo of their set-up, and let them know if you feel that further improvement can be made.
Working Environment - Encourage your employees to look at their homes differently, identifying potential hazards that have the potential to cause harm. Cable dangling from the table, desk or bench. Overloaded power sockets or multi-boxes. These things can be potential fire, electrocution, and tripping hazards. Educate your employees; loose cables can be tied together with old bread ties and secured to the floor with packing tape. It's about making their environment safer any way they can. Inspections aren't always practicable, but you can, and should, encourage your people to make sure their environment is as safe as they can practicably make it.
Regular Check-ins and Ongoing Communication - Fundamentally humans are inherently social beings; we survive and thrive together so it’s important to create and enable two-way communication with each other. Keep in regular contact with your team by scheduling in phone calls or video conference calls to discuss how they are going and how they are managing work under these circumstances. It’s important to encourage employees to take breaks and maintain social interaction while working from home to ensure they are also looking after their well-being. To help reduce the risk of loneliness or isolation associated with working remotely, you could create a ‘buddy system’ where team members buddy up to connect on a daily basis.
Mental Health & Well-being - As an employer you may start to see increases in stress, anxiety, and potentially even burnout. It is likely that the impact of Covid-19 will be affecting your team’s personal and work lives in many different ways, each will react differently, some may struggle to juggle their work and family commitments when they aren’t feeling the two can be effectively separated right now. It is important that you empower and encourage your employees to take control of this new way of working and make a new routine that allows the flexibility needed to achieve their desired outcomes. Be prepared to show vulnerability and share your emotions and encourage your people to reach out for support, practise self-care, and acknowledge that it’s OK and reasonable not feel 100% all of the time.
Workload - As indicated above, your employees may have other responsibilities or commitments during while working from home such as caring for their children or supporting other dependents. This may put extra stress on them resulting in poor well-being and lower productivity. We encourage all employers to make a plan for how to manage work around this. This may include altering hours worked, allowing for frequent breaks, or altering workload.
Finally, in the instance that an employee, or other individual, was to suffer harm resulting from a "at home" working environment, it pays to be aware that WorkSafe may wish to conduct an investigation which would include visiting the home to consider what hazards or risks were present, what mechanisms were in place for eliminating or minimising such hazards or risks and what else could have reasonably been done in relation to ensuring health and safety.
Whilst it will be entirely fact dependent, at a minimum we would anticipate WorkSafe would expect to see that the following steps were in place:
Evidence of an assessment of the home workspace to ensure its suitability from a health and safety perspective; and
Evidence of frequent communications between the employer and employee regarding the current working arrangements and any issues or concerns.
Disclaimer This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.