Workplace flexibility is becoming the norm… but what working from home safety and wellbeing risks come with that?
When an employee works from home, their home becomes ‘a place of work’ and is therefore part of the employer’s responsibility. The same risks that are present in the usual place of work, can be present in someone’s home. The obligations for working from home safety are no less than if they were working on the company premises.
The risks may be physical or psychological.
They can include physical risks:-
- Slip, trip, fall
- Manual handling
Conditions leading to psychological risks include :-
- Excessive workloads
- Organisational change
- Conflicting demands
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of involvement in making decisions
- Inadequate communication
It is not only the working area that needs to be safe in a home office, but also facilities such as the kitchen and bathroom.
There is also the notion that ‘others’ in the workplace may be at risk. This includes children, parents, friends, clients, and anyone else who may visit the home during working hours.
These are some of the serious risks that employers should aim to eliminate or reduce.
Working from home can also lead to uncomfortable circumstances as demonstrated in this video…
There’s nothing more embarrassing than a child crashing a video conference or a dog barking during an important call.
Do employers realise they could be liable if something happens to their staff while working at home? Or if their child is hurt in the home while staff are working and looking after the child?
If an employee were to sustain an injury while working at home, the relevant test would be whether the injury sustained “arose out of, or in the course of, the employee’s employment”
Most employers understand that employees are entitled to workers compensation benefits if they are hurt while doing their job. However, a number of employers underestimate their liability for someone working from home.
We have seen several cases where an employee has been injured at home and entitled to workers compensation. One such case involves a Telstra employee who fell down the stairs whilst wearing socks and was awarded compensation. In that case, it was found that she was locking her door, as was part of her working at home agreement due to recent burglaries in the area and slipped. She was found to be in the ‘course of her employment’ and therefore entitled to workers compensation.
In another case, a teacher returned home from work and carried books that needed marking, using a cane basket. She fell and broke her ankle and was entitled to workers compensation.
The complicating factors are when we consider ‘others’ in the workplace from a Work Health and Safety perspective.
We know from a tragic case that a child would be considered as another in the workplace. An employer was recently convicted of WHS offences after a 2-year-old boy was killed after playing next to truck tyres that were leaning against a wall. The child was found trapped under one of the tyres and died of head injuries. There should be separation between area of work and areas accessible by other people.
A lot of parents will opt to work from home when they are the primary carer for a child. The issue for employers is that the home is part of their responsibility. Employers therefore have responsibilities for others that will be there. It isn’t hard to imagine a small child injuring themselves if their care giver is distracted.
Recovery Partners risk assessments have found that it is not appropriate for the primary carer to work from home with young children.
What are the ramifications for the employer if someone is hurt in the home while a staff member is working?
There are three (3) main ramifications:
- Potential damage to brand
- Insurance claim – public liability – employers should make sure they have adequate insurance in place to cover people working from home and any equipment they may have supplied.
- Potential Work Health and Safety breach. These can include large monetary fines and custodial sentences.
Recovery Partners have worked with employers who have been involved in fatalities and serious injuries and it is soul destroying for everyone involved. No business owner wants their employees or anyone else to get hurt.
The question will be if the employer’s actions were reasonable. If they were deemed that they were not reasonable, the employer can be prosecuted.
How can a risk assessment help?
The purpose of a risk assessment is to identify any risks and how we can eliminate or remove them. It is individualised.
For example, if we attend someone’s home and they plan to work at an old desk and chair that aren’t ergonomically sound, we will recommend a new desk and chair.
We look at ergonomics. Most companies don’t want their employees working from a lounge or kitchen table.
So we look for obvious physical hazards, such as electrical hazards, is there a safety switch?
We look at how the employee’s safety can be guaranteed.
We look at the phone reception (most people don’t have home phones so we need to make sure they can get help if they need it).
We look at what would happen if there was a fire or other emergency.
We look at psychosocial risks such as personal security and isolation.
What are the agreed processes for start and finish times?
How can employers make sure the home is a safe working environment?
The best way is to do an assessment. Employers may feel very strange about going into someone’s home. But ‘working from home’ is still a place of work, and part of the employer’s responsibility.
We encourage employers not to do self-assessments, due to lack of objectivity. Also, it is unlikely the employee will have the complete necessary understanding of work place health and safety. We suggest an independent risk assessment by Recovery Partners.
Each workplace will be different, and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Have there been any recent prosecutions of employers not providing a safe working environment?
In recent months we have seen that penalties handed down by Courts are becoming more severe with a greater focus on individual liability.
In Ziebarth v Simon Blackwood (Workers’ Compensation Regulator)  QIRC 121, the Industrial Relations Commission of Queensland found that a fleet service manager had injured his back in the course of employment when, rushing to answer his work phone at home, he had slipped and fallen.
The evidence considered by the Commission particularly centred on whether he had been encouraged by his employer to hurry and answer his phone. The facts found by this commission included that he was required by his employment contract to be on call from time to time and had been given a mobile phone for this purpose. His employer had previously chastised him for failing to answer his phone and it was for this reason that he had rushed out of the shower when the phone rang and slipped on wet tiles.
How should employers manage people working from home?
Employers should consider:
- Workplace safety
- Start and finish times
- How they will communicate with the worker throughout working hours
- What equipment is required and who will supply it. For example phones, internet, computers, software etc
- A documented, signed agreement between the workplace and the individual.
Get in touch to for safety and wellbeing processes for your employees working from home.
Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/
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