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Home… safe and sound?

Most accidents, as they say, happen in the home, which is particularly worrying given that the number of people working from home is on the rise. Navigating the grey area of occupational health and safety law in the home can be tricky, but proportionality is key. Says Chris Warburton, Communications Officer, British Safety Council.

Recent analysis carried out by the Trades Union Congress of unpublished Labour Force Survey data revealed that the number of people working from home has increased by 13 percent in the last five years. In 2012, just over four million people mainly worked from home, 470,000 more than in 2007. The number of people occasionally working from home is likely to be many millions more.

This is a figure that is only going to increase in the coming years. In April this year, new legislation comes into force that will give all employees the right to request flexible working and all business will have a duty to consider requests in a reasonable manner. It is could well increase the number of people working from home. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for some employers to overlook those who work from home or are based off site when drawing up health and safety policies and procedures. It’s often a case of out of sight, out of mind. Employer’s responsibilities for people working from home, where the domestic and the occupational overlap – has sometimes created confusion. Where does the employer’s duty of care end? Should employers actually go into a homeworker’s house and carry out a risk assessment? Or can you just let them get on with it?

The first thing is to remember that health and safety law is not there to trip employers up – it’s there to facilitate employers in keeping staff healthy, safe and well. The second is that at the core of the UK’s health and safety law is the concept of ‘reasonably practicability’; in short, the measures introduced to control risks should be proportionate to the risk itself. But what it also means is that, in many circumstances, there are no hard and fast rules about what should be done. There is no specific law that deals with homeworkers; all health and safety law applies equally to home and lone workers as much as it does site-based staff. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places general duties on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make suitable and sufficient assessments of risks to their employees. Employers also have a legal duty to consult staff on anything that might affect their health and safety.

The responsibility for ensuring the health, safety and welfare of any lone or homeworkers cannot be transferred to the individual themselves. Employees, however, do have a legal responsibility to take reasonable care of themselves and others affected by their work activities and to co-operate with their employer in meeting their legal obligations. When drawing up risk assessments and procedures employers should be sure not to forget to include homeworkers in their considerations. The law requires employers to assess the risks to homeworkers and from any work-related tasks they carry out. Employers should also speak to the homeworker about the risks and hazards they face, as they know their work and home best. But where an employee is involved in the risk assessment, they need to be suitably trained in order to carry it out effectively. Most office-type work carried out at home for an employer can generally be classed as low-risk, but that doesn’t mean staff should just be left alone to get on with it. What it does mean, though, is that simple precautions can make work more comfortable and productive.

A large proportion of homeworkers are likely to work on computers. Over or improper use of computers has been associated with a number of health effects, such as experiencing fatigue, eye strain, upper limb problems and backache. These problems can result from poorly designed workstations, work environments or poorly organised work. Under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 all employers must carry out an analysis of display screen equipment (DSE) for the purpose of assessing the health and safety risks to which users are exposed, and this includes people working from home if their use is more or less continuous on most days. But it’s not always practical for an employer to send someone to the employee’s home to conduct a risk assessment of their workstation. One solution is to train the staff member to undertake their own risk assessments. This can be done by providing the employee with an ergonomic checklist so they can assess whether their workstation and computer is set up correctly and risks are minimised. There are also a number of DSE training course available via e-learning, enabling homeworkers to complete a training course and understand the measures they should introduce to reduce health risks. Usually the course ends with a risk assessment, which employees complete through answering a series of questions.

It is a vital for employers to check the completed risk assessments they receive from homeworkers, to ensure the worker has understood the need for precautions such as setting up their workstation correctly, and to ensure all suitable measures have been taken. The employer should therefore analyse all the completed user checklists for any outstanding problems or doubtful points, and if they have a number of homeworkers, it is worthwhile choosing a couple at random and speaking to those employees about the assessment. In addition to risk assessment training, homeworkers will need general training and information about health and safety issues related to DSE use – for example, on breaking up long spells of DSE work with breaks or changes of activity to avoid the risk of fatigue and eye strain. This is important for all users, but is especially for homeworkers who are not under immediate supervision. If staff are properly trained and given instruction for using and assessing their DSE and workstation and no issues are thrown up by the assessment or during any later reviews, then it seems unlikely the employer will need to visit the worker at home.

But employers should use their common sense: if a staff member complains of a bad neck or painful wrists, even though they have implemented their training and amended their workstation in line with the findings of the risk assessment, then it might be appropriate to go to their house and find out what’s wrong and what needs to be done to address it. In any case, homeworkers should know who to contact for help and to report problems or symptoms from DSE work or any other problems connected with homeworking. To ensure the requirements of the DSE regulations – which set out minimum equipment standards – are properly complied with, employers may also have to provide equipment, such as a desk, chair, footrest or other working furniture, if the homeworker does not already have them or they are unsuitable. It is also worth remembering that homeworkers should be provided with eyesight tests on request and a basic pair of glasses, if they require them specifically for DSE work, just like site-based staff.

DSE assessments will need to be reviewed if major changes are made to the equipment, furniture or work environment, if the nature of the work changes considerably, or the user reports problems. Users will need to be retrained if significant changes are made to workstations.  If an employee needs to carry out regular lifting or moving of heavy objects as part of their work, their employer will also need to carry out a manual handling risk assessment. If the employee is only doing small amounts of lifting – papers out of the back of their car for example – then the control measures introduced will not need to be so great. General manual handling training given in their induction should suffice, and the employer might not have to visit them. Again, proportionality is the key. If a homeworker is regularly lifting heavy, hazardous loads, then it may be worth introducing more stringent control measures, such as providing them with a trolley. One problem sometimes associated with homeworking is isolation from colleagues and managers, which can lead to stress. Make sure line managers keep in touch with any homeworkers and offer them, as far as possible, the support they would give to site-based staff.

Homeworkers will need clear chains of communication for reporting and resolving any problems, such as ergonomic defects or warning signs of health concerns such as eye strain or stress. This works best if there is a culture that encourages staff to report back promptly about any problems encountered and staff and managers are motivated to find and implement solutions. Homeworkers themselves are responsible for the facilities and the environment in which they work. Loose or trailing wires or carpets that are curling up at the edges are not the direct responsibility of the employer. But it makes sense that, if employees are undertaking DSE training, that more general health and safety training on things like slips, trips and falls is provided. After all, 55 percent of accidental injuries in the home involve falls, according to the safety charity RoSPA. If an employer provides a computer and related electrical equipment, it is good practice to advise the homeworker on other risks such as the danger of overloading sockets. In many cases of homeworking, adequately training the employee may be enough to suitably control the risks, but remember to keep the risks under review. The Health and Safety Executive has a wealth of information on its website, which is well worth looking at. Navigating occupational health and safety needn’t be a minefield. If you can hold the joint concepts of proportionality and keeping your staff safe and healthy, you can’t go far wrong. 

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