Out of sight, out of mind?

Up
to a million employees use computer-based technology to work from home. The
evidence suggests that many companies fail to safeguard their health and
safety. Howard Fidderman explains the practical and procedural steps to protect
teleworkers and their employers

Most
HR managers will be familiar with the phrase "work-life balance".
Many also face shortages of office space, and all will be aware of productivity
demands. To help balance these competing needs, an increasing number of
employers are allowing some of their employees to work partly or exclusively
from home. Too often, however, these teleworkers become "out of sight, out
of mind".

Employers
have the same legal obligations to their employees, regardless of where they may
be working. The core duties arise under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
This requires an employer to protect, so far as is reasonably practicable, the
health, safety and welfare of its employees wherever they work. Employers must
also have a written health and safety policy, ensure that work equipment is
safe, and consult with their employees.

Over
the years, hundreds of sets of regulations have expanded on these basic duties.
Those most relevant to teleworking include:


Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which require an
employer to carry out a risk assessment in order to implement preventive and
protective measures required under other legislation; and


Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, which set out
the ergonomic requirements for DSE workstations.

Other
regulations pertinent to teleworking cover working time, consultation with
employees, hazardous substances, injury and ill-health reporting, pregnant and
breastfeeding workers, first-aid, the provision and use of work equipment, and
the manual handling of loads.

Enforcing
the law

Teleworkers
are not a priority for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors and
local authority environmental health officers (EHOs) who enforce safety at work
legislation. They are highly unlikely to inspect an individual home because it
would represent an inefficient use of their time. At best, they will look at an
employer’s management systems for ensuring its teleworkers’ health and safety.

Prosecutions
are highly unlikely unless something goes badly wrong. In theory, they could
attract a maximum fine of £20,000 in a magistrate’s court. A Crown Court
prosecution, which is even less likely, does not carry a maximum fine. A more
probable sanction would be a civil case for damages brought by a teleworker who
had suffered injury or ill health. Even this is a remote possibility. Health
and safety law is, ultimately, good and sensible practice. Employers that fail
to manage their teleworkers’ health and safety are far more likely to suffer
from sickness absence, disgruntled employees, lower productivity and increased
staff turnover than an appearance in court.

Assessing
the risks

Health
and safety duties are underpinned by the concept of risk assessment, a five-stage
process that is the same for telework as it is for office-based work. Managing
the risks of telework can be difficult; a worker has no on-site expertise and
the employer lacks proximity and control. Managed properly, however,
teleworkers should face no greater health and safety risks than their
office-based colleagues.

Before
assessing the risks of homework, an employer should gather as much information
as it can. The HSE, in particular, publishes a range of free or cheap essential
information; and some trade unions representing teleworkers publish useful
guides and checklists.

An
employer should consult employees about health and safety arrangements on its
own premises. Many of the hazards will also be present when working from home.
It should also talk to other organisations running teleworking schemes,
professional and trade organisations, and the local HSE inspector or EHO
(depending on the relevant enforcing authority).

It
is rarely practicable for an employer to visit and assess workstations at the
homes of all its teleworkers. A more common assessment method begins by asking
teleworkers to complete a self-assessment questionnaire, and then for a safety
officer or project manager to check the form and ensure that any remedial
action necessary is taken. Some employers insist on a right to carry out random
checks on teleworkers in situ.

Hazards
and harm

The
first stage of the risk assessment requires an employer to identify any
hazards, i.e., anything that might cause harm. Physical hazards can include
inappropriate workstations and equipment, overloaded electrical sockets,
inadequate wiring, faulty plug sockets and trailing wires. Potential work
environment hazards include poor lighting, insufficient heating, flooring that
is unable to take the weight of equipment and filing, and inadequate working
and storage space. The organisation of work can present hazards, including
inadequate breaks and unreasonable targets, while psychological hazards may
arise from isolation.

In
the second stage, an employer must decide who might be harmed and how. Persons
at risk will obviously include the teleworker, but the assessment should also
look at the presence in the home of children, other members of the family,
childminders, cleaners and people who may visit the home for work purposes. The
assessment must, by law, pay particular attention to workers who are pregnant,
breastfeeding, under 18 years of age or disabled.

The
hazards may give rise to harm through electric shocks, tripping over trailing
wires, and musculoskeletal problems such as back and work-related upper-limb
disorders arising from inappropriate working practices and equipment. Harm may
also manifest as a stress-related illness caused by an inability to leave work
behind, overworking, family-work conflicts, reduced social interaction, and
feelings of isolation. There are also injuries and damage involving children
and pets.

Tackling
the risks

The
third stage involves an employer assessing the risks (the chance that someone will
be harmed by a hazard) and taking steps to remove or reduce them as far as
possible.

An
employer should consider insisting on some or all of these provisions as
pre-conditions for teleworking. It is easier, however, to provide appropriate
equipment and prescribe safe working practices and conditions than it is to
ensure adherence and safe use on a daily basis. Too often, work desks and
chairs find themselves in the garage, replaced by dining furniture.

The
provision of information, training and instruction is crucial for ensuring that
teleworkers use the equipment appropriately. Consider electronic delivery on
the home terminal of a short in-house course before telework begins, supported
by a simple electronic or paper reference guide. Flash up a display screen
equipment (DSE) checklist on the computer that the teleworker must complete
before starting work.

Particular
difficulties surround the safe organisation of work away from the office.
Employers should ensure that workers are trained in the importance of taking
breaks from screen work (consider automatic warnings), working hours are not
excessive, the pace of work is not too arduous, and that use of laptops is not
prolonged.

Finally,
ensure that teleworkers are mentally equipped to handle isolation and control
their workload. Regular contact, in person as well as by e-mail or phone, is
essential.

Recording
and checking the findings

The
fourth stage of the assessment requires an employer, if it has five or more
employees, to record the significant findings of the assessment. The findings
should cover preventive measures used, further action that may be required and
proof that the assessment has been carried out.

The
final stage involves an employer checking the findings of its assessment. There
may have been significant changes over time. Check the assessment still holds
true, and that effective systems for detecting and reporting injuries and signs
of ill health exist. Teleworkers should be aware of common symptoms and of the
importance of reporting them. The experience of some employers is that
teleworkers may be reluctant to report problems for fear of losing their
telework status.

Howard
Fidderman is editor of IRS’s Health and Safety Bulletin and a former advisor to
MPs Jo Richardson and Gavin Strang

Reducing
and eliminating risks


Employers must ensure that the teleworker’s workstation and work equipment are
safe to use. The seat of the chair must be adjustable in height, and the back
adjustable in both height and tilt. Display screens should swivel and tilt
freely. Equipment first put into use after 1992 should, in any case, be
manufactured to these standards. Glare on the screen is a frequent problem;
this should be countered by repositioning the screen where possible. If this
does not work, the employer should provide blinds or curtains. All display
screen users – home or office-based – must, by law, be offered a free full eye
and eyesight test. The employer must pay for a basic pair of spectacles  if they are needed  specifically for screen work.


Check the strength and capability of electrical equipment, the insulation of
conductors and earthing, and that there are sufficient sockets. A competent
person should test the equipment before use and at least every five years.


Domestic premises are not covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare)
Regulations 1992, which establish minimum requirements for workplaces. But
employers would do well to ensure that their teleworkers enjoy similar
standards, including a minimum temperature of at least 16¡C, but ideally
between 19.4¡C and 22.8¡C, and lighting of 100 Lux (i.e., sufficient for a
person to read). Although not a legal requirement, a separate workroom is
desirable. It increases security and allows the teleworker to "leave"
the office after work. Some employers and unions make a separate room a
condition of working from home.


Manual handling is responsible for a great deal of work-related injuries and
ill health. Employers should ensure that their teleworkers do not have to shift
heavy or bulky loads.


Check that first-aid and fire precautions, particularly detectors and
extinguishers, are adequate.

Case
study
Research and Consultancy Services

Research
and Consultancy Services (RCS), a subsidiary of Consignia, carries out postal
consultancy and project management work. RCS has 200 consultants and
researchers, about three-quarters of whom are location-independent workers
(LIWs) employed in a "home and away blend". New recruits to Consignia
attend a three-hour internal health and safety course.

The
LIW needs and rules are explained in The Consignia workwise guide. RCS gives
this to all LIWs, along with a guide – VDU fit – on posture, screen legibility,
and organisation of the work area and workday. The company provides all LIWs
with an ergonomic chair with good gas suspension, desks and pedestals. Although
RCS looked into issuing fire extinguishers, there was no uptake among LIWs.

LIWs
must complete a two-part self-assessment checklist:


LIWs identify potential risks from: 14 workplace area categories (house
keeping, ventilation, temperature, lighting, space/layout, windows/doors,
access/egress, tripping/slipping, manual handling, fire exit, fire appliances,
electrical supply, noise/nuisance and work surface); They also consider risks
from 13 types of equipment (furniture/fittings, VDU workstation, filing/storage
cabinet/cupboard, overhead projector, television, video, radio, electrical fan,
coffee machine/kettle, flipchart, printer, phone battery charger and fax).


LIWs identifying a risk complete a second section detailing the hazard, risk,
risk rating, remedial action and completion date. The risks must be rated:
"high" (probability of death, serious injury or disability);
"medium" (probability of minor injury, disability or absence from
work of three days or more); or "low" (probability of injury
unlikely).

All
LIWs have to arrange and ensure that electrical equipment is tested annually.
They must also adhere to Post Office standards for lighting (500 Lux, light
meters supplied) and space (11m3). RCS does not carry out assessments in LIWs’
homes; as senior people they are trusted to make such assessments themselves.

LIWs
send a signed copy of the assessment to their managing consultant and retain a
copy for themselves together with a checklist of reportable incidents. Managing
consultants are responsible for checking that members of their teams comply
with the law; RCS will shortly be re-issuing rules to all managing consultants
on compliance with health and safety legislation. Report-back arrangements will
in future be straight to the research and consultancy directors or to the
personnel policy manager.

This
article first appeared in the March 2002 edition of Employers’ Law.  To subscribe click here

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