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Are employers responsible for homeworkers?

16 April 2020

Employers have a legal duty of care for the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. Chris Salmon looks at how to mitigate risk.

With millions of people suddenly working from home as Coronavirus measures continue, many employers don’t realise that their legal obligations include homeworkers. 

So what does the law say about homeworking, how are employers exposed, and what should you do to mitigate risk?

What the law says

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 states that employers must “make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work”. The Act makes no distinction between home workers and those working from the office premises.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 stipulates that employers are responsible for the health and safety of homeworkers, as far as is reasonably practicable. 

In summary, employers owe exactly the same duty of care to their employees, whether they are working from their employer’s offices or from home.

How can employers fulfil their duty of care?

Employers will be taking all possible steps to protect the health of remote employees during the pandemic.  However, it is equally critical that employees are not exposed to new and preventable risks as a result of homeworking.

Providing a safe working environment for home workers presents a specific challenge. The employee’s workspace cannot be monitored and managed as easily as it could be in communal offices.

For example, if there are trip hazards such as trailing cables or obstructions to access, these would likely be spotted and remedied in an office environment.  With homeworking, the employer is reliant on the employee setting up and maintaining a safe workspace.

In order to establish a safe environment, from the outset, employers must carry out a risk assessment.

At-home risk assessments

In most cases, it is both reasonable and practical for employers to provide homeworking employees with an ‘at-home risk assessment’.

The employee can assess their own workspace with a detailed checklist, provided by the employer.  HR managers should offer assistance and training throughout the process.

For most people, homeworking will mean working behind a desk with a PC or laptop. The assessment should consider the workstation, and any equipment to be used by the employee, such as a monitor, peripherals and lighting.

You will also need to verify that there is a suitable fire escape route, unobstructed access to the working area, a fire extinguisher and possibly even signage.

If the employee is expected to lift or carry anything, manual handling training must be provided. In fact, anything that can have a bearing on the health and safety of the employee and minimise exposure to the employer must be addressed by the risk assessment.

Employers may struggle to create a detailed risk assessment, given the sudden wholesale move across to homeworking.

If the company does not already have an at-home risk assessment, there are numerous templates available online that can be used or adapted.  The HSE has a free Display screen equipment (DSE) workstation checklist.

Belt and braces

Employers should embrace the spirit of health and safety at home. However, employers should also recognise that compensation paid out to an employee injured at work can be significant. A robust at-home assessment will protect the employer as well as the employee.

One idea for making the assessment more robust is to ask the employee to provide photos of their workspace as this will make a virtual process more tangible for HR managers.

Some firms are even experimenting with video. Employees can use a mobile device to stream their home environment to the HR manager who can ask pertinent questions and give advice in real time.  For the purposes of an audit trail, there are apps available that can record the video call.

Once the pandemic restrictions are relaxed, employers may find that some employees wish to continue working from home.  A subsequent and more bespoke assessment may then be advisable.

Employer’s responsibilities

The following are the key points to address:

  • Check, and if necessary update, your Employers’ s Liability (EL) insurance policy.  Many policies do not include homeworking cover by default.

  • Give the employee two copies of your health and safety policy. Ask the employee to sign and return a copy.

  • Carry out a risk assessment of the employee’s workspace.

  • Implement any measures to manage and minimise risk as identified in the assessment.

  • Check any equipment that you provide to the employee (e.g.does any electrical equipment have any exposed or frayed wires?)

  • Provide protective equipment - as required. (e,g,  back support, ergonomic chairs, monitor glare filters etc.)

  • Ensure that there is a first aid kit and provide an emergency contact.

  • Arrange for regular updates and reviews

Employee’s responsibilities

Employers should encourage employees to:

  • Read the health and safety policy and any other information you provide.

  • Raise any questions or concerns as early in the process as possible.

  • Confirm if there will be other people, including children, passing through the home office.

  • Inform you of any special equipment required (e.g. a standing desk or platform, footrest or wrist support).

  • Report any new hazards and concerns as they arise.

What are the legal consequences of a homeworking accident?

If an employee is injured or made ill during the course of their employment, your business could be held liable. This applies equally to homeworkers.

That said, case law on homeworking injury is constantly evolving and will no doubt be stress-tested in the coming years. 

Where the line is drawn between working and living at home, is not always clear. The most prudent approach for any employer to take would be to assume the broadest interpretation.

If an injured employee takes legal action, compensation is usually paid by the company’s liability insurance.

If the insurance cover does not include homeworking, or if the company has failed in its duty of care, the company may have to settle an expensive injury claim from its own pockets.

Chris Salmon is the Operations Director of Quittance Legal Services in the UK. For more information, visit www.quittance.co.uk