The shifting sands of responsibility for employee safety with remote working

All employers have a duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their employees. This means that they have a legal obligation to assess the potential risks in the workplace and a responsibility to put measures in place to protect their staff from those risks. Failure to meet that duty of care can lead to work accidents and, in some cases, fatalities.

As well as having a duty to protect the safety of their employees at work, employers are also legally required, under the Reporting of Injuries, Disease and Dangerous Occurrences Regulation 2013 (RIDDOR 2103), to report and keep records of all work-related deaths, specific types of work-related injuries, occupational diseases, and dangerous occurrences.

According to RIDDOR figures for 2019/20, there were 64,427 non-fatal workplace injuries reported by employers, along with 111 fatalities.

With the advent of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the last 12 months has seen considerable changes in virtually every aspect of our lives, both at home and at work. With millions of employees furloughed, business premises closing, and a seismic shift in the numbers of people working from home, anecdotal evidence from work-accident solicitors is suggesting the number of work accidents has plummeted.

This does not mean that employers can be complacent about the welfare of their employees, it just means that their responsibilities have had to evolve to reflect the changing work practices of their staff.

What responsibilities do employers have under health and safety law?

All employers have a common-law duty of care to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees. In addition, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 every employer has a legal obligation to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees are protected, whether they work in-office or remotely. They must also ensure the health and safety of others not in their employment, such as visitors, contractors, or members of the public.

Whilst the number of people working on the premises may be significantly down on the normal levels and visitors may be few and far between, employers still have to meet their duty of care towards those employees who are still coming to work, including meeting the current government COVID-19 guidelines.

Under health & safety law your employer must:

  • carry out an appropriate risk assessment of the health and safety risks in the workplace
  • advise employees of the risks to their health and safety from existing and proposed working practices and equipment
  • inform employees what measures have been put in place to protect their safety
  • advise employees on where and how to get first aid treatment and what to do in case of an emergency
  • provide the necessary training and instruction to enable employees to work safely and without risk to health
  • provide, if required and without cost to employees, appropriate personal protective equipment
  • provide regular health checks if the nature of the job or the material used means that there is a danger of the employee developing ill health.

Temporary additional requirements due to COVID-19 secure guidelines

  • carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment
  • develop cleaning, handwashing, and hygiene procedures
  • help facilitate people working from home by discussing home working arrangements
  • maintain two metre social distancing where possible
  • where people cannot be two metres apart, manage transmission risk

In the same way as employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety of those working on site, they are also obliged, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, to ensure that appropriate health, safety, and work practices are in place for employees working remotely.

Whilst unfamiliar territory for many small business owners, having never had remote workers in the past, it has never been more important for employers to ensure that their remote workers are adequately protected.

As many small businesses have been forced to focus on business continuity to survive, it is possible that remote workers’ health and safety will have been overlooked.

So, to help ensure small business owners are taking the necessary steps to protect their remote workforce, and their businesses, we have compiled a list of the five necessary obligations that employers are legally required to do to look after the physical and mental wellbeing of employees working remotely.

1. Work environment

Just as any employer in required to assess the risks at the office or factory, similarly, they are also required to conduct an at-home risk assessment to ensure that any remote worker has a safe work environment in which to work.

This process can be carried out remotely by providing staff with a detailed self-assessment questionnaire and does not require a visit to the employee’s home – especially during the current lockdown. This process is often best supported by a video call, allowing the employer to see the employees work environment and offering the opportunity for constructive input.

If your company does not have an existing risk assessment questionnaire, there are plenty of free templates available online that can be adapted to suit the needs of your business and your employees.

It is essential that this is a two-way process, and that the employer provides appropriate information to the employee on how to set up a comfortable office. This helps avoid future issues that arise from inappropriately set up work environments, such as headaches, vision problems and posture related issues.

Another important aspect of carrying out an adequate risk assessment relates to Employer’s Liability Insurance. Firstly, it is important to check that your policy covers home working and secondly, failure to carry out an adequate risk assessment could invalidate the company’s policy if the employee suffers an illness or injury.

2. Equipment

Employers have a duty to ensure that employees have the necessary equipment to allow them to carry out their work from home. If their job requires the use of a computer and they have access to a work laptop or a suitable personal computer, that is perfectly acceptable but in situations where this is not the case, the employer is required to provide one.

Another consideration is where data is to be stored. It is the responsibility of the employer to outline where files should be stored to protect security, this could mean saving data to a file-sharing server, allowing colleagues access, and so that it is protected by adequate security measures.

3. A remote working policy

Though not legally required, it is advisable for an employer to create and implement a remote working policy. The policy should provide guidance and clear information as to what is and what is not expected from members of staff working from home and should also detail what the employers’ obligations are to the employee. By outlining what is expected from both parties, this should help avoid or resolve issues that may arise in the future.

Though not a legal requirement, it is highly recommended that an employer creates and implements a working from home policy, to provide guidance and clear information as to what is and what is not expected from employees working from home, as well as what their obligations as an employer are. This will help to resolve or avoid issues that have the potential to arise later on, by clearly defining what is expected from both parties in advance.

The policy should include details of where the employee can help for any issues – be it HR or IT related, as well as detailing any equipment provided by the employer and what happens in the instance that any of the equipment becomes damaged, lost or stolen.

If an employee is concerned that their employer does not have such a policy, they should speak to the appropriate person to raise their concerns.

4. Concerns

An employer should provide the employee with details of who to contact with any concerns – be it concerns about equipment, physical or mental wellbeing, work practices, training, IT, or any other potential concern relevant to the nature of their job. This will give the employee the peace of mind that they know how to resolve potential issues and will allow them to work efficiently and effectively.

5. Regular communication

It is important that employers stay in regular contact with any remote workers, whether this is via video call, by phone or email – to monitor the wellbeing of staff, performance, and workload.

This will help to swiftly eliminate any concerns either party may have, affording them the opportunity to agree upon any changes to working practices or systems, whilst ensuring staff are receiving the guidance and support that they are entitled to whilst remote working.

As it is difficult for an employer to gauge how an employee is coping with working from home and whether they are managing with the workload, it is crucial that an employee knows who they can contact is issues such as these arise.

Although it seems unlikely that the current scale of home working will continue once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. It does seem likely that the number of people wanting, or needing, to continue working from home on an ongoing basis is set to increase and so too, unless employers take the necessary steps, could the number of injury at work claims relating to work accidents at home.