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Safeguarding the health and safety of remote workers during the coronavirus lockdown

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United Kingdom

With UK office staff likely to continue working from home for some time, Elliott Kenton, an expert in health and safety law at Fieldfisher, considers the wellbeing obligations this places on employers.

  The UK government's efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has had a dramatic impact on working practices.
 
Official guidance from the Cabinet Office continues to state as of 1 May that "every worker – whether critical or not – should work from home if they can" and that "employers must make all efforts to help people to work from home where possible".
 
Media reports concerning the government's draft lockdown exit plan suggest office workers in particular will be encouraged to work from home for some time, as the government attempts to gradually re-start the economy while limiting the spread of coronavirus.
 
While many normally office-bound workers may relish the opportunity to work from the comfort of their homes, residential homes are not designed to be workplaces.
 
This poses potential risks to employers, who have a duty to safeguard the health and safety of their staff and others, while they are performing services for those employers.
 
Homeworking policies
 
With many employees mandated to work from home for the foreseeable future, employers have less control over workplace safety.
 
For some organisations, homeworking is not a new concept and many businesses already have working from home policies and procedures.
 
For those that do not typically require or allow homeworking, these employers should review existing risk assessments, consider what work their employees will be doing from home, and whether it can be achieved safely.
 
Employers should also think about what controls should be implemented, if they have any doubts about the safety of the work. If employers have serious concerns, alternative working practices should be considered and adopted.
 
DSE
 
Many employees will use display screen equipment (DSE), such as computers, laptops and smartphones. DSE risks should be controlled, as far as reasonably practicable, as they would in the usual working environment.
 
As a starting point, workers should receive information about DSE, including how to complete a risk assessment at home.
 
These risk assessments should be returned to the employer who, depending on the outcome of the assessment, must decide whether specialist equipment is required for a particular worker.
 
Organisations should also consider whether workstation assessments can be undertaken remotely – for example, by video-conference – especially if remote working continues in the longer term.  
 
Mental health
 
Shifting working patterns, disrupted childcare arrangements and other potential interruptions to people's lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may have an adverse effect on stress levels and the mental health of many employees.
 
Employers should implement systems to safeguard the mental health of workers, including communicating with staff on a regular basis and appointing personnel to offer support and advice.
 
It is also advisable for employers to consult their workforce to understand the effect changing working patterns is having on them, and adapting policies and procedures accordingly.
 
Electrical equipment
 
Employers need to be aware of their obligations when supplying electrical equipment for homeworkers, such as laptops, monitors, docking stations, printers and electrical leads.
 
Before this equipment is issued to workers, the employer must be satisfied that the equipment is safe. It is therefore recommended the equipment be visually inspected and PAT (portable appliance testing) tested in advance of being given to workers.
 
It is best practice to regularly inspect electrical equipment used by workers. While this may be difficult in the current environment, it would be sensible to test all equipment as soon as workers are able to return to the office. 
 
Employers should also provide practical electrical safety advice to remote workers, including advice on how to avoid overloading electrical circuits.
 
Enforcement action
 
Even though working environments have changed, statutory obligations imposed on employers have not.
 
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has confirmed it will continue regulatory oversight of dutyholders, according to its capacity during the coronavirus lockdown.
 
Employers should take a pragmatic approach to compliance and not become complacent about their legal obligations, as the safety of workers is paramount and fines for failing to comply with HSE obligations can run to tens of thousands of pounds.
 
For more information on legal implications of the coronavirus lockdown please visit Fieldfisher's COVID-19 content hub, we are updating this daily with up-to-date information.
 

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