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January 5, 2021

Health & Safety – Homeworking – 9 months on, and counting…

I wonder how many of us, who were able to work from home since last March, still expected to be doing so some nine months on, and counting? Back then it may have been assumed that these homeworking arrangements would only be for a few weeks. In many cases, supplying employees with a laptop and access to the workplace IT network, some guidance on ideal (but perhaps aspirational), seated posture and workstation set-up, would have been considered as being sufficient. However, a dining room table and chair (at best) or a coffee table and sofa (worse), is never going to provide the adjustment and comfort of that offered by a ‘proper’ office chair and desk. ‘Making do’ for a few weeks, until a semblance of normality returned to daily life (oh how we hoped!) and we migrated back to working in the office, was the expectation of most employers and employees.

A ‘homeworker’ is a worker whose contract of employment states that their home is their normal workplace. An employer has a legal responsibility to assess the risks to homeworkers and to ensure they can perform their work in a manner that safeguards their health and wellbeing. For temporary homeworkers (where the office is their contracted place of work) this requirement to carry out a risk assessment is not so clear cut. The HSE’s guidance on temporary homeworking states: ‘For those people who are working at home on a long-term basis, the risks associated with using display screen equipment (DSE) must be controlled. This includes them doing workstation assessments at home. There is no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily. So in that situation employers do not need to ask them to carry out home workstation assessment’. It is worth highlighting the point – ‘no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily’. How temporary is temporary though? The legalities of this are open to question. Could any ‘temporary make do’ arrangements have increased the risk (from DSE work)?

Regardless of where an employee is working, or for how long, a legal duty of care applies. For most employers the practical method to determine whether that duty of care is being upheld (and the relevant hazards in respect of homeworking have been identified) would be to carry out, and act upon the findings of, a risk assessment. Most employers with whom I’ve spoken with over these last few months, have carried out risk assessments in respect of their employees who found themselves swapping the office for their home environment last March. It is worth noting that the HSE’s guidance does state that for temporary homeworkers; ‘employers should provide workers with advice on completing their own basic assessment at home’. These risk assessments would have most likely followed a format similar to the DSE workstation assessments used for assessing the risks to employees whilst working in the office environment. On the basis of these, individual, risk assessments, and any concerns raised, employees may have been supplied with additional equipment to make their ‘temporary homeworking experience more comfortable, and productive. This additional equipment might have included: a monitor (or monitors), keyboard and mouse, an office chair and even a desk. For employees who may not have had the space at home to accommodate an office chair or desk, and those who may simply, and understandably, have not wanted the intrusion and blurring of home and the workplace by introducing office furniture into their home, the notion of “making do, as it’s only going to be temporary”, would have been accepted by both parties.

How many employers though have revisited these risk assessments since they were first undertaken during the early stages of the pandemic? Are ‘make do’ arrangements still acceptable given the uncertainty over how much longer these ‘temporary’ measures will continue for? And crucially did these risk assessments give equal consideration to the physical risks of working from home (poor working posture / using unsuitable equipment) with those presented by the mental health effects of working from home (for example: loneliness / isolation, separating work and home life). The latter point being ever more relevant as this temporary (that word again) situation is extended still further.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Gary Foggo.

January 5, 2021

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