Justin Tarka considers employers’ duty of care for employees and workers

During lockdown, thousands of employers were forced to tell their staff to work from their homes. Overnight, offices became empty. Given the sudden nature of the change, understandably, while covid-19 was at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the workplace, wider health and safety concerns were not. Employees were working from their homes, stopping the spread of the virus. Did the employer have a responsibility with regards to their health and safety given they were not attending the workplace?

A recent study by PIRC, a corporate governance advisory firm, has shown UK companies have been drastically underreporting workplace injuries. Post-covid 19, with new hybrid models of working, now is the prime time for companies to check their health and safety procedures are compliant with UK law.

What is required by law

Breach of health and safety laws can have criminal and civil consequences for employers. All employers have a legal obligation to protect their staff when at work. Failure to do so can result in action from regulators, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under criminal law, or result in civil claims for compensation from impacted employees.

Employers are obliged by law to conduct a risk assessment of employees’ working environments. The responsibilities for employees working from home is the same as any other worker – whether they work entirely remotely or split their time between their home and the workplace.

Usually, employers will not need to conduct the assessment at the employee’s home. However, it may be appropriate to do so for employees who have particular needs – for example, if they are particularly vulnerable or have a disability.

Workers also have a responsibility to take care of their own health and safety and others who may be harmed by their actions carried out in the course of their work. Cooperation with employers is required to ensure all duties under the law are met. As part of this, employees should report risks and hazards to their employer.

What should employers practically do?

Risk assessment templates should be provided to home workers for them to complete. These should be collected and reviewed with the employee to address any issues arising from the risk assessment. If employees Best practice would be to provide training on how to conduct a risk assessment to ensure it’s completed effectively by all employees.

Employers should talk to their staff about their working arrangements, as working at home may not be suitable for everyone. For example, some people may not have an appropriate place to work, or may prefer to come into the workplace for wellbeing, mental health or other reasons.

A sensible approach would be to have a remote working policy in place. This should be regularly reviewed by the employer and easily accessible to workers. The policy will ensure there are appropriate measures in place for home working which will be applied consistently across the business. In the policy, expectations for working habits when at home (such as reminders to take rest breaks) should be included, to make sure workers understand what is expected of them when they are homeworking. Even though they are at home, they should not feel as though they should work longer hours as opposed to when they are in the office.

Mental health and wellbeing

There are some things employers can do to help prevent stress and help workers look after their mental health when working from home.

Staying in regular contact with staff, ideally by phone and/or video call, in teams and one-to-one, is a good way to ensure regular casual check-ins on their wellbeing and spot any potential issues. Employers should encourage open dialogue and talk to employees about workload, to facilitate support where appropriate. Reminding employees to take regular breaks during the day when working from home is important. Further reassurance can include encouraging employees to rest when they are unwell, and facilitating, where possible, use of annual leave.

Most importantly, make sure employees know how to get help if they need it. Reminding employees of the typical signs of stress can help them regulate their own wellbeing at work. If employers are concerned anything is affecting someone’s mental health or wellbeing, they could encourage them to speak to their doctor, or arrange assistance from an occupational health provider.

Justin Tarka is an employment solicitor at Ogletree Deakins: ogletreedeakins.com

Justin Tarka
Associate
Ogletree Deakins International LLP