OHS: working from home

OHS: working from home

Louise Woodburn, general manager at KBC Risk Solutions, explains why employee health and safety remains the employer’s responsibility in a work-from-home environment.

With many organisations now looking to adopt more flexible working hours permanently, the Work From Home (WFH) trend is here to stay. While this offers numerous benefits, there are certain considerations organisations must bear in mind, not least of which is the fact that they remain responsible for the health and safety of their employees when they are working at the office, at home or remotely.

Businesses need to understand the implications of WFH from an occupational health and safety (OHS) perspective and engage with the right partner to ensure they have the policies and procedures in place to protect themselves and their staff from harm.

The workplace from an OHS perspective

The OHS Act defines the workplace as any place where a person performs work for the employer. By extension, this now includes many people’s homes. Employers therefore have a legal obligation, as far as reasonably practicable, to ensure that the home office environment is safe and without risk. The same requirements apply to the home working environment as to the formal office space.

Risks versus benefits

For many employees, WFH has been hugely beneficial. It has permitted a greater degree of work-life balance, significantly reduced commuting costs, improved productivity and enabled more flexible working hours. For employers, it has resulted in higher employee retention, and the ability to recruit candidates from outside a specific geographical area.

However, there are also risks involved in the WFH environment. Employees may find it difficult to adjust, to avoid distractions, and to remain motivated. There is also the risk of overwork because the geographical boundaries between work and home have been removed. Stress and fatigue come into play, as well as feelings of isolation resulting from a lack of in-person interactions with co-workers.

Aside from these “softer” challenges, organisations also need to ensure that the equipment used by staff – computers, desks, chairs and so on – meet the same specifications as those in a formal office. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide ergonomically safe equipment and ensure that employee environments are conducive to productivity.

The implications of WFH

The duties of the employer remain the same regardless of where the employees are performing their jobs. They need to provide safe workplaces that have sufficient light and ventilation, are ergonomically sound and meet all the criteria specified in the OHS Act. In addition, if an employee is injured at work, whether work is done in an office or at home, they may be entitled to compensation. This becomes complex in the WFH scenario, as it is difficult to define which parts of the home are considered “work”.

To cover these scenarios, a WFH policy needs to be developed, defining a scope of boundaries along with requirements for a safe working environment. Businesses must consult with employees who are working remotely to ensure that they have the equipment and resources required to perform the work required.

It is also important to compile a risk assessment covering all elements of potential harm, from fire hazards and proper use of equipment to the possibility of burnout and fatigue. Employers must have policies and guidelines in place on their expectations for home workplaces, defining the parameters required to manage potential risk and liability. It is also recommended that the WFH policy needs to be drawn up by a partner who has the necessary OHS expertise.

The right partner is essential

Employers have both a moral and a legal obligation to create safe workplaces, but WFH adds a layer of complexity to managing employee health and safety. Collaborating with an experienced partner who understands the potential implications and liabilities is essential.

Not only will the right partner be able to identify the risks of a WFH environment and develop policies that mitigate them, but they will also help ensure that employees are happy, healthy and safe. This includes physical health and mental well-being.

In this changing environment, health and safety considerations also need to evolve. The key is to identify risk, put the right controls in place, create awareness around the issues, and continuously monitor and review to ensure they remain relevant.

Published by

SHEQ Management

SHEQ MANAGEMENT is the definitive source for reliable, accurate and pertinent information to guarantee environmental health and safety in the workplace.
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