Employers' health and safety responsibilities to remote workers

The lack of a proper office has led some people to get creative, and 8 per cent of home workers have reported being injured from using an ironing board as a desk. But businesses could face legal repercussions if they don’t protect employees’ safety

Employers' health and safety responsibilities to remote workers

Almost a year into the Covid pandemic and with no sign of a return to the office any time soon, many remote workers will likely have kitted out their home office with a decent chair, a desk and perhaps even a computer monitor, if such equipment wasn’t supplied by their employer. But for those who don’t have such luxuries (and even for some who do), the risks of back pain, repetitive strain injury, eye strain and more are high. 

With remote working likely to be a permanent feature of the ‘new normal’ for some time to come, People Management spoke to employment experts about what a ‘workplace’ injury might look like in this new context, as well as employers’ responsibilities, and what legal repercussions they could face if preventative measures aren’t taken. 

What are firms’ responsibilities?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 do not apply to domestic premises, explains Greg Clark, employment solicitor at B P Collins, but that doesn’t mean businesses can relax. “If an employee is working from home, employers still have a duty to do whatever is reasonably practicable to protect the health and safety of their employees,” he says.

Gerard Stilliard, head of personal injury at Thompsons Solicitors, agrees, adding that it remains the business’s responsibility to carry out risk assessments on employees’ workstations, even if that is at home. This should cover the work being done, the hours spent working and the equipment being used, he says. “It also needs to factor in relevant personal characteristics such as height, weight, gender, age, disability and whether they are pregnant,” adds Clark. “Employees also have an obligation to take care of their own health and safety and highlight any dangers to their employer.” 

What sort of injuries should businesses be aware of?

For most home workers who were previously office based, there are two main risks, Clark explains: using display screen equipment for long periods of time, which can lead to eye strain, back pain and repetitive strain injury; and the significant risk to employees’ mental health. 

Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, also emphasises the mental health risks related to working remotely, including the isolation that can ensue because of limited contact with colleagues or line management. But, she adds: “There are other injury risks within the home, which the employer has joint, limited or no responsibility for.” These include the risk of electric shock and fire – which in both cases could be linked to the employer if any incident is related to work equipment. The key question employers and employees must ask themselves is: ‘Is it work related?’ she says.

What consequences could employers face?

If occupational health and safety responsibilities aren’t met and an employee is harmed, “there is always the potential for criminal prosecution from the Health and Safety Executive or civil legal action in the form of personal injury claims”, says Wilkinson.

But she adds that there would need to be a clear failing on the employer’s part for them to be found liable for any injury in the home. Providing companies continue to follow good practice through the provision of equipment, training, instruction and supervision, then the risk of litigation is reduced.

There’s also the potential for reputational damage, along with other more immediate threats including the breakdown of working relationships between company and worker, reduced productivity and lost time from absence.

What is HR’s role?

As a first step, employers should be clear about who in the organisation is responsible for managing health and safety risks, says Matt McDonald, employment partner at Shakespeare Martineau. While this will often fall within HR’s remit, this isn’t always the case and firms need to avoid a situation where no one is taking charge. The nature of remote working also means employers are now largely reliant on employees to take the steps needed to mitigate many risks, so effective communication is key. “Staff must be properly informed of a full range of risks in a home working environment and how these can be addressed, as well as what equipment the employer is prepared to provide to help,” McDonald explains.

Businesses also need to explain how staff should report accidents or injuries sustained when working from home and make sure they’re aware of what support is available, “particularly in relation to mental health concerns”, McDonald says.

Employers that don’t have in-house occupational health expertise should make sure their HR teams have the relevant qualifications, skills and experience, says Wilkinson. And businesses should ensure risk assessments are in place for all work activities, she adds, with employees informed, aware and competent as necessary. Training and supporting line managers to manage remote workers is also important, and employers need to ensure systems are in place to proactively support employee health and wellbeing.