Covid - 19, Health, Home working, Safety, Workplace

Assessing Safety In The Extended Workplace

Once an obscure, fanciful and exotic possibility for a privileged few, working from home is now yet another aspect of society which has become an integral part of the ‘new normal’.

With many employers and employees convinced of its benefits, working from home seems set to become one of the most enduring changes to our life that the Covid-19 pandemic thrust upon us.

But what considerations should employers make in order to ensure that they are going through the correct assessment process when allowing employees to work from home? What is expected of both parties?

Many of a company’s existing procedures and policies can be followed, with some key additions, to guarantee that all legal aspects of any change are covered.

Risk assessment
Just as with working within the traditional workplace environment, employers are obliged to carry out a ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessment for their employees’ work activities.

If this is not possible due to COVID-19 limitations, the employer should provide information on working safely from home, which could include asking the employee to conduct a self-assessment of their workspace and equipment.

If any changes are needed to assure a safe and healthy working environment at home, the employer is responsible for providing that, as well as regular reviews to guarantee that these working environments remain safe and healthy.

Regular contact with managers should be maintained in order to detect and attend any physical or mental health and safety risks or changes to the working arrangements, such as scheduling modifications.

The use of video calling allows both managers and employees to appreciate and benefit from the ‘visual’ aspects of a communication, things that are excluded if people are reliant upon the use of phone calls only.

Health, safety and wellbeing
It is now well documented that the coronavirus pandemic and its societal changes have exacerbated both mental and physical health, issues which must be considered by employers, especially if employees are now working from home.

Common problems include:

  • Addictions, stress, solitude, anxiety and other mental health issues
  • Lack of physical exercise and related health effects
  • Pressure to work while ill (‘presenteeism’)
  • Longer working hours and inability to switch off from work (all employees – including those working from home – are covered by the same law on working hours)
  • Physical pain from unsuitable workspace equipment (chair, desk, etc.)

Solutions that employers should consider:

  • Carrying out regular reviews of individual home-working risk assessments to assure that employees have all necessary equipment and information to work safely
  • Being flexible when setting deadlines, work hours or work patterns
  • Ensuring that managers maintain regular communication with employees, to encourage them to share any issues that they are having so that adequate and timely support can be given
  • Establish clear goals and targets
  • Remind workers’ of their rest break entitlements and provide tips to help them manage their work-life balance, as well as optional informal spaces such as online quizzes, coffee catch-ups, etc.

A homeworking policy
Due to the many new considerations that such a change to an employee’s working environment can entail, employers are encouraged to develop a homeworking policy.

Ideally, this should be done in consultation with workers and needs to cover all the above points, as well as helping everyone to understand the following:

  • Which roles can be done from home?
  • How pay, expenses, tax, insurance, sick pay and leave are handled
  • What equipment is necessary to carry out the job adequately and safely, which party is responsible for providing certain aspects (reliable internet connection, etc.) and what procedures are to be followed if any issues arise
  • Rules and responsibilities for both parties regarding data protection and cyber security
  • How employees will be managed and monitored
  • How employees should communicate with each other and their managers
  • Requirements of employees regarding attending meetings, their format (one-to-one, group, remote, etc.) and frequency

Employers must also consult with trade unions or other employee representatives if they are considering making any changes to existing homeworking policies and agreements.

As with any change to company policy, communication is paramount. All policies and agreements should be written down, effectively communicated and signed by all concerned parties.

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