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Expert set-up on all chairs & desks By one of our ergonomic consultants

How to avoid the health and safety pitfalls of homeworking

by Ian Fletcher-Price
CEO
Posturite Ltd

Most people recognise that home working has big benefits. It allows companies to cut costs and boost productivity. And it offers employees a more flexible, family-friendly way of working.

No wonder, then, that in these troubled economic times, more and more businesses are looking to ditch expensive office space in favour of setting up workstations in people’s homes.

However, before embarking on a remote working policy, both employers and employees will need to address some important issues, particularly in relation to health and safety.

For the company – and, in particular, for the people responsible for ensuring it meets all its statutory obligations – there is the logistical complication of keeping tabs on employees scattered across lots of individual locations.

And for the employee, there is the need to accept that their home is no longer their castle. Once they agree to become a home worker, they may need to cede certain rights to the company.

These can difficult and be touchy areas. So it’s important to lay down strict policy guidelines from the outset so that no one can be in any doubt about what is expected of them.

This should cover potentially contentious areas such as the choice and supply of the furniture and equipment to be installed, what happens to it if an employee leaves, the methods of conducting health and safety training and assessments and the requirement for ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance with the regulations.

Although most employees will relish the opportunity to work from home – and the time, money and stress they save by doing away with the daily commute to an office – they may be somewhat less enamoured once the employer begins to stipulate some of the conditions attached to it.

As the health and safety manager of a major international IT and business services company told me recently: “We regard working from home as a privilege, not a right.” So, even though his company is currently engaged in an exercise to enable around 70 per cent of its 4,000 UK employees to work from home, many applicants don’t get past the first hurdle.

That may be because they simply don’t have enough space in their home to create a dedicated workspace that will enable them to operate safely, securely and efficiently. The company doesn’t necessarily demand that its people allocate a separate room in their home to their work activity – though it’s ideal if they can – but it does insist that the individual has sufficient space available to accommodate comfortably their workstation and storage equipment and allow them to work safely.

A photograph or scaled plan of the intended work space will often suffice to help determine what is and isn’t possible. But it may be necessary for a company representative to make a personal visit to the property to assess whether it is a suitable place of work and, if so, how the accommodation can be arranged to allow it to happen in accordance with all the health and safety rules.

Either way, it involves the company finding out more about employees’ homes than would normally be necessary. While this may be uncomfortable for some, it is plainly necessary in order to avoid potential problems further down the line.

The choice of furniture and equipment is another area of possible contention. People can be very particular about the type of furniture they have in their homes, especially if they don’t have a dedicated study or work room.

However, always remember that the law – in this case, the 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act and its subsequent various regulations – draws no distinction between the responsibilities employers have to protect the health and wellbeing of their office-based staff to those associated with people working at home or nomadically.

The 1992 Display Screen Equipment Regulations, amended in 2002, laid down minimum standards to which all work stations must conform. It’s important, therefore, that the company makes the final decision on the choice of furniture and equipment.

By working closely with your supplier, you can select styles, finishes and colours of desks and chairs that will not look too out of place in a domestic setting. At the same time you can ensure that the set-up complies with all the regulations.

In an ideal world you would include ergonomic seating to minimise the risk of back problems, sit/stand desking to encourage movement, and accessories such as adjustable writing slopes and document holders to ease everyday aches, pains and strains. Contrary to popular belief, people who work from home often work longer hours than those in the office, partly because they’re not lured into coffee machine chats. So in many ways they need the extra protection that good ergonomics can provide.

Once the company has decided on the style and type of furniture, the only element of choice that remains with the employee is one of size, and that is largely determined by the working space available in the home. Each individual can then order direct from the supplier who holds the agreed product list and make their own arrangements for delivery.

Having supplied the employee with a complete work station, what happens to it if he or she leaves?

If it’s fairly new and suitable for re-allocation, you’ll probably want it returned. But if you decide that its removal is uneconomic, and the employee is happy for it to remain in their house, you could allow them to keep it. However, as this creates a potential unwanted taxable benefit for the employee, it may be necessary to ask them to pay something for it. Either way, the subject needs addressing in your policy document.

Once all the equipment is installed, training and assessments will need to be carried out to ensure full compliance with DSE regulations.

In the office, these may be carried out by trained DSE assessors. But when workers are scattered far and wide, this becomes far more problematic. Fortunately there are many computer-based training and assessment programs available – including packages designed specifically for home workers – that will enable the employee to do the assessments themselves and file their findings electronically direct to those who need to take action.

Ongoing training can also largely be carried out electronically, although you should never overlook the importance of maintaining personal contact with remote workers. For this reason alone, some face-to-face training and assessments should also be included in the programme.

Of course, working from home is just one of many options for remote working. With technologies such as laptop and tablet computers, handheld devices and the increasing availability of wireless access, people can work from wherever is the most effective place to get the job done.

This expanding, highly mobile workforce presents its own problems, not least in assessing risks and ensuring proper management of them.

Most will carry their laptop with them to use wherever they find somewhere that allows them internet access. That could be a touch-down point in one of the company’s offices, a table at Café Nero or in an airport lounge.

Computer-based training programs can again play an important part in ensuring that people are aware of the correct ways to use their laptops so that they don’t strain their eyes or backs. But you should also consider providing height-adjustable laptop stands and a separate keyboard and mouse and provide training when a laptop is issued.

Even if someone only works remotely occasionally, they should be supplied with the training and accessories that will ensure they have a suitable set-up. The training should include a risk assessment to hel
p them identify and report shortcomings if they are found.

As with other remote workers, there should also be a clear guidance about how to resolve problems if and when they arise.

The employer’s duty of care extends equally to staff that operate out of clients’ premises. It’s important, therefore, to satisfy yourself of the client company’s health and safety protocols at contract stage. In most cases, a questionnaire review should be sufficient, but if the risks are higher a site visit might be necessary.

Once your staff member is installed at their work station, an assessment similar to that for a home worker will be required. Again, this is probably best done by training employees to do it themselves. It will certainly be less onerous than paying personal visits.

Home and mobile working is here to stay. If methodically planned and implemented, it can have big benefits for the employer, employee and society at large.

In summary

  1. When drawing up a home or mobile working policy, ensure that this is done in discussion with human resources, IT, facilities and health and safety to ensure all aspects are covered.
  2. Line managers need to be central to the process, firstly to decide if the task is suitable to be performed off-site and then to ensure the health and safety of their staff.
  3. Provide line managers with suitable training to use the procedures and the skills to manage staff remotely.
  4. Decide how the risk assessments are to be performed and kept up to date, and formulate systems to control any risks found.
  5. Decide on a range of standard furniture to be supplied (the more choice the more to go wrong) and the method for delivery and installation. Also consider what will happen when equipment is no longer needed.
  6. Ensure the system for ordering, delivery and maintenance of equipment is easy and efficient.
  7. Ensure that issues such as home insurance, security of data and storage are not overlooked.
  8. Make sure you have a system to deal with exceptions, e.g. employees with particular needs or when standard equipment is not suitable.