Thanks to modern day communications and the increasing cost of office space, allowing employees to work at home is an attractive option for employers. It is also appealing for employees seeking to balance their work, family and other life responsibilities and interests.
Working at home covers a variety of different arrangements, both formal and informal. Some executives and professionals intermittently work at home outside of office hours, others split their time flexibly between home and the office, mobile employees have an office or base at home and some people work full-time from a home office.
Developing a strategy for employees working from home, other than on an occasional basis, requires careful consideration of a range of issues. These include technology, furniture, integration with colleagues, effective supervision and health and safety. While issues such as technology are usually carefully considered, employers often overlook health and safety because they are unclear as to what their obligations are to homeworkers.
What the law requires
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) places duties on employers to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and others who may be affected by their employee’s work. This duty covers both the physical and mental health of employees and applies whether they are employed at the employer’s own premises or elsewhere.
This duty therefore extends to employees working at home. Most of the regulations under the HSWA apply equally to employees working at home or in the employer’s workplace.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require that employers assess their employees’ work activities to identify any hazards to their employees or to anyone else likely to be affected by their work, and then take steps to prevent harm to those people. Employers will no doubt be familiar with carrying out risk assessments at their own premises, but may not have considered what steps they should take to protect their homeworkers.
Identifying the hazards
Employers are under a duty to evaluate the risks to their employees as a result of work being done at home. First, employers should consider whether the work is suitable for homeworking. They should also ensure the designated work area in the home is suitable and that the equipment used by the employee meets the same standards as that provided to employees at the employer’s place of business.
Employers should ensure they evaluate all hazards. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advises that it may be necessary for employers to visit their homeworkers to carry out risk assessments. In practice this may be difficult, for example, if employees live a long way from the employers’ premises or if the employer has a large number of employees working from home. In such cases employers should be able to discharge their legal duties by giving appropriate consideration to the potential risks that their homeworkers may face, discussing those risks with their homeworkers and advising them on how best to manage them.
It may be unnecessary in certain circumstances for example, if the employee only works from home intermittently. In such cases employers may ask their homeworkers to help by identifying potential hazards for them.
Determining who might be harmed
Employers will need to consider who might be at risk by the work done at home and how. The assessment of risk should include risk of harm to the employee’s family, including children, and to people visiting the employee’s home.
Taking appropriate action
Once the employer has identified a risk that may harm a homeworker or another person it will need to decide what steps to take to eliminate or reduce that risk as far as possible. The steps taken will depend on the employer’s assessment of the level of risk, the type of injury that may result from the risk and how often it might occur.
For instance, if an employee is handling goods as part of their work, employers should provide training in lifting techniques and/or lifting aids to prevent injury. If an employee works with a computer it is important that their work station is set up comfortably and they take regular breaks so as to prevent pains in their hands, wrists, arms, neck, shoulders or back.
Recording the findings
The law makes it compulsory for all employers with five or more employees (including homeworkers) to record the results of risk assessments and the steps they have taken in respect of the risks. In addition, the homeworker and anyone else affected by the homeworker’s activities should be advised of the results of the risk assessment.
Reviewing the risks
After completing an initial risk assessment, it is important for employers to regularly review it to ensure there is nothing more that needs to be done to take into account new hazards. This is especially important if there is a change to the working practices of the homeworker. By conducting regular risk assessments, employers may spend more money in the short term ensuring their employees are safe – but they protect themselves from the risk of fines or claims from employees or others in the future.
New and expectant mothers
Employers should pay attention to risks to homeworkers who are new or expectant mothers. A new or expectant mother means an employee who is either pregnant, has given birth within the previous six months, or who is breastfeeding.
The risks that should be assessed include risks to the employee’s unborn child or to the child of a woman who is breastfeeding, not just risks to the mother herself. The HSE publishes guidance on its website about the known risks to new and expectant mothers and what employers should do to comply with health and safety law.
Employers will need to provide first aid for homeworkers as well as office staff. These requirements will depend on the nature of the work and an assessment of the risks involved.
Employers should also have procedures in place for reporting and keeping records detailing work-related accidents, injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences. These procedures should require homeworkers to report incidents to them.
HSE inspectors are responsible for enforcing the HSWA and regulations made under the HSWA that apply to homeworking. Inspectors have the right to visit homeworkers to ensure the risks from homeworking are properly managed. They also investigate and help settle complaints about working conditions that could affect the health, safety and welfare of employees, including homeworkers.
Christine Jenner is a solicitor in the litigation department, Winckworths.
Good practice tips
- Effective health and safety management relies on good communication between the company and homeworkers, given their isolated working arrangements
- It is good practice to conduct risk assessments that are specific to each homeworker’s duties
- Providing and maintaining work equipment can ensure these are in a safe condition
- Any training provided for homeworkers should address health and safety issues
- Any incidents affecting homeworkers need to be communicated to, and recorded by employers
- Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
- Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981
- Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995
- The Health and Safety Executive Guidance on Homeworking can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg226.pdf