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Working from home? Don't forget health and safety

Who is responsible for the health and safety of staff working from home? This is a question many businesses may not have turned their minds to. As working arrangements become more varied and flexible it is increasingly important that businesses and workers are aware of their obligations.

Work from homeThe Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 introduced stricter obligations on businesses and officers, as well as significant sanctions for offences under the Act. However, the Act and the cases decided under the Act are silent as to health and safety obligations regarding staff working from home.

Under the Act, businesses must ensure workers' health and safety "so far as is reasonably practicable", no matter where they work, including at home. Workers also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety. This duty is particularly important for workers who are working from home.

Many businesses may take the view that if a worker is working from home they are entirely responsible for their own health and safety. After all, they're in their own home. Despite this logic, businesses are still primarily responsible. Whether working from home is a one-off or a long-term arrangement, there are certain steps businesses should take. Such steps include a working from home policy, individual discussions with any worker who wishes to work from home, and workplace assessments for those working from home long-term.

Businesses with staff working from home should have a policy setting out the expectations on the worker and the business, including specific guidelines as to how the home workspace should be safely set up. The policy should state that any worker who carries out work from home, whether as a one-off or long term, will:

1. ensure their home workspace is arranged so that it is comfortable and ergonomically sound;

2. discuss with their manager any equipment needed to be able to safely perform their work;

3. ensure the workspace is kept clear and free from obstacles or tripping hazards, and is well lit;

4. ensure they have appropriate fire safety equipment, a first aid kit, and have planned their exit route in case of an emergency;

5. ensure all work related information and data is kept secure;

6. take regular breaks;

7. communicate regularly with their manager and discuss any problems that arise from working from home; and

8. inform the business immediately of any hazard or health and safety risk that arises.

Like any workplace policy, a business can only rely on the policy if workers are aware of it and that it must be followed. Businesses should regularly bring the policy to the attention of workers who are working from home and ensure they understand it applies to them. The policy should also address key issues such as keeping confidential information secure, such as by not saving anything to a personal computer or hard-drive.

One step better would be for businesses to get workers, prior to working from home long-term, to sign an agreement whereby the worker agrees to set up their workspace according to specific guidelines, comply with the policy, and that the business can give reasonable notice and come inspect the workspace.

Additionally, any time a worker will be working from home their manager should talk with them before work commences to discuss the working from home policy, their specific set up, any health and safety concerns and ensure they have the proper equipment.

Further, prior to a long-term working from home arrangement commencing, a workplace assessment by a qualified person, such as an occupational therapist, should also be carried out. Statistically, where a worker will be working from home long-term there is a greater likelihood of a hazard or risk occurring. Accordingly, any cost to minimise risk is more reasonable given the longevity of the arrangement.

While some businesses might think the recommended steps are too much effort just for a worker to work from home, the relatively simple steps of having a good policy and making a phone call are worth it. Although workers have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and they have a significant part to play when working from home, the business must start the discussion and ensure steps are taken.