The coronavirus (COVID-19) needs no introduction and, as the pandemic continues to spread extensively, it poses significant challenges to employers and to their employees.
On Monday 15 March, Boris Johnson announced at a press conference:
"Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can."
These unprecedented circumstances will pose a number of legal and practical issues for businesses to deal with but the safety and health of employees should remain a top priority. This is not just a legal obligation. Employees will remember for years to come how they were treated during this time. If you get it wrong, it could have a lasting impact on the morale and loyalty of your workforce as well as on the public perception of the business.
In this article, we consider some of the practical steps employers should be taking to ensure that they discharge their duties to employees who are working from home. For those employees who cannot work from home, we also look at the adjustments which employers can make to keep their employees safe in light of the increased risks.
If you are interested specifically in understanding how to deal with some of the employment law issues which employers are facing, our employment team has provided practical tips in their article titled "How UK employers can deal with the special circumstances created by the coronavirus (COVID-19)".
Employers have a duty to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that their employees and other people who might be affected by their business, are not exposed to risks to their health, safety and welfare.
In practice, this means employers making sure that their employees and others who are affected by their business in are protected from anything that may cause harm. They must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this.
Employers have duties under health and safety law to assess risks in the workplace. Risk assessments should be carried out that identify all risks that might cause harm and then set out reasonably practicable methods to eliminate them and if that is not possible reduce them.
Employers are responsible for ensuring that any work equipment which they have provided, like laptops and mobile phones, is safe.
How can employers discharge their duties when employees are working from home?
Employers who have employees who are working from home should carry out a risk assessment of the work activities and take appropriate measures to reduce any associated risks.
The employer does not have to attend at each employee's home to carry out the initial risk assessment and any follow-up risk assessment required. Instead, the risk assessment can be conducted by the employee from home.
A home working risk assessment should check whether the home worker's place of work is suitable. Much work carried out at home is going to be low-risk, office-type work so any risk assessment will consider the following:
- It must assess the suitability of space- there should be enough room to work;
- Temperature; and
We have created an example checklist which employers could send to employees to complete. The checklist is a "catch all" example to be adapted to suit your overall communications around working from home and promoting good practices.
Employers should make sure the risk assessment is completed by each of the employees and any issues addressed as far as is reasonably practicable. Employers should save a copy of each of the completed risk assessments. If an employee's situation changes, the risk assessment should be updated.
Employees should be advised to ensure that their workplace is a separate area of the home to which access by other members of the household can be controlled and in which normal work place practices can be undertaken. This may present practical difficulties in the current climate and compliance to the usual standards may not be possible. Some workers may not have the means to work anywhere other than the kitchen table and/or they may need to share their work space with more than one member of the household. Perching on the corner of the kitchen table is unlikely to be comfortable and could cause health problems if employees are required to do this for a prolonged period. Employees should be reminded that, above all, from a health and safety perspective, they should be working somewhere which is comfortable and gives them the appropriate space to work ideally on a flat surface. They should think about their usual desk environment when in the office and should try to emulate this as far as possible in their home. Supplying employees with "laptop risers" and other support aids like wrist supports and foot rests (as required following a risk assessment) which can be ordered online and dispatched directly to employees at home may also facilitate safer home working. If other members of the household are also required to work from home, they should consider swapping areas periodically in order that each gets a share of the "most comfortable/appropriate" working area.
They should take regular breaks, sit comfortably on a suitable chair where possible and get up and walk around regularly.
Employees should ensure that they have a working and regularly checked fire alarm/smoke detector and a fire escape plan in place. They should also be advised to check that flammable materials (e.g. paper) and ignition sources such as cigarettes are carefully controlled.
If employees are using electrical equipment provided by the employer as part of their work, the employer is responsible for its maintenance. Employees should check company equipment regularly to ensure it is safe for use (does not have any defects) and is kept in a safe condition that will not cause any harm to employees or others.
Electrical sockets and other parts of the home electrical system are the employee's responsibility. When using electrical equipment in the home, employees should be advised to check the following:
- Plugs are not damaged and are correctly wired and maintained
- Electrical leads, wires and cables are appropriately covered and not damaged
- No trailing wires, these must be tucked away under a desk or table to prevent accidents
- Signs of burn marks or staining on equipment (this could suggest overheating of appliance)
- Outer cover of equipment is not damaged (such as loose parts/screws etc.)
- The home electrical system is adequate for the electrical equipment provided
If there are any faults or damage to work equipment, the employee should be advised not to use it and should return this for repair or replacement immediately. Clearly, this may become increasingly difficult to do and the appropriate method for returning the equipment should be assessed in the circumstances at the time.
Ideally there should be a system in place that is well known to the employees to enable them to let the employer know if there is a problem or to get advice on a specific situation, e.g. that their laptop is not working properly.
Working with VDUs
Computer workstations or equipment can be associated with neck, shoulder, back or arm pain, as well as with fatigue and eyestrain.
Employees should be advised to refer to the employer's Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Policy for further information on how to stay safe when using VDUs.
Communication and mental well being
Good communication is an essential part of a successful home working arrangement.
As ever, employees' mental wellbeing should also be a priority. Working from home can lead to limited social contact resulting in feelings of isolation and even depression and this is especially exacerbated in times of prolonged working from home in circumstances where people are facing increased uncertainty. Employers should try to combat this using video calls and by ensuring that managers check-in with employees by phone and email. Sending newsletters and continuing to communicate with employees about the developing situation will also be necessary.
For particularly vulnerable workers (i.e. those who live alone), employers could address the risks by setting up a "buddy system" to ensure that each employee is assigned to another employee whom they should check-in on (by phone or video call) periodically.
What about those that can't work from home?
Not all employees will be able to work from home because of the nature of their job. If this is the case, in addition to the usual risk assessment which has been conducted in order to assess the risks in the workplace, employers will need to consider adapting their policies and advising employees to do the following where possible and as applicable in order to try to mitigate against the increased risks caused by the pandemic:
- Avoid/cancel all non-essential business travel - UK and international.
- Work only from 'normal' office/work location - do not travel between offices/work locations.
- Do not attend external or internal conferences/meetings with more than say 25 attendees. Use conference calls and other alternatives to meet/collaborate with clients and colleagues.
- Stagger commuting times if possible. This may mean shifting working hours to start/end either earlier or later than usual, to avoid the busiest and most crowded times on public transport.
If you are interested specifically in understanding how to deal with some of the employment law issues arising where employees cannot work from home and where your business is facing a downturn, Gowling WLG's employment team has provided practical tips in their article titled "How UK employers can deal with the special circumstances created by the coronavirus (COVID-19)".
Do let us know if you want to discuss any of the issues raised in this alert.