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The forgotten risk to safety

29 March 2021

EMPLOYERS ARE still responsible for the health and safety of their workers while they work from home, which is particularly relevant as many still do so due to the pandemic. Charlotte Dowson looks at their legal responsibilities.

Just over a year ago, businesses up and down the country hastily downed tools as the lockdown came into effect and working from home was actively encouraged. For many businesses, this meant a scramble to ensure employees had the right equipment to do their job from home, as well as assessing privacy risks, testing technology infrastructures and getting to grips with Zoom.

By law, employers remain responsible for their staff’s health and safety at work, even if that work is taking place from home. This means that risk assessments should be carried out to ensure the employee’s safety.

With social distancing, these risk assessments can be carried out virtually or self-assessed by employees, and should consider physical and mental health and the impact of working from home. For example, the Health and Safety Executive recommends employees using laptops or other display screen equipment should be advised to take regular breaks, change position, get up and stretch and change focus and rest eyes to prevent eye strain or fatigue. For those employees with specialist needs, the employer should think about providing dedicated equipment, such as ergonomic chairs or height-adjustable desks. 

However, with the circumstances of the lockdown and enforced working from home for many, employers have sometimes neglected these important risk assessments – especially as many hoped the arrangements would only have to be for a few months, rather than a year and counting. As a result, risks have been missed. The charity Versus Arthritis found that 35 per cent of office workers received no equipment, support, or advice from their employer on home working and four in five who are homeworking as a result of lockdown had developed some form of musculoskeletal pain. 89% of those suffering with back, shoulder or neck pain have not told their employer about it and the charity pointed to nervousness over job security and uncertainty over employment rights as a reason behind the lack of conversations about this issue.

Employees that are working from home should ensure that their desk chair, monitor, keyboard and mouse are set up ergonomically correctly. If they haven’t had an assessment of their work station they should request one from their employer. 

It’s not just physical injury which employers and employees need to be mindful of, but mental wellbeing too. Both bosses and their staff should be making sure they’re regularly talking about stresses and strains as a result of working from home. Employers need to make sure they’re following the law on working hours too – which is harder to monitor with everyone based remotely. Domestic abuse has also sadly risen over the past year and again, employers need to be aware of this issue, fulfil their legal duty of care and ensure their employees are properly supported. ACAS recommends arranging code words and alternative places of work if home isn’t safe, for example. 

If it was found that an employee had been injured while homeworking as a result of an employer’s negligence, a claim could be made. This could be due to faulty equipment, but it could also be if a repetitive strain injury is sustained for instance and it could be proved that this was due to a lack of proper training from the employer.

Whilst it could be difficult to make a claim against an employer concerning injuries sustained while working from home, especially with the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, it is not impossible and both employees and employers need to be aware of the risks and their responsibilities. 

Working from home is likely to be a lasting legacy of the pandemic. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics found that 29 per cent of working adults will continue to undertake their jobs from home more often in the future. Both employers and employees need to be aware of the potential risks to health this poses, and take action to keep safe.

Charlotte Dowson is a senior solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp. For more information, visit www.boltburdonkemp.co.uk