COVID-19: Health and safety of home workers

26.03.20

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen thousands of office employees redeployed to the world of home working, and for many, it will be the first time. Social distancing measures developed so rapidly that many employers had little time to implement anything beyond the immediate need to provide home working technology. However, with many businesses successfully operating remotely, employers must be careful and remember that they still have to comply with legal obligations regarding employee health and safety.

Home workers across the globe posted photos of their improvised workstations on social media; ironing boards, dressers and recycling bins became standing desks. But as we settle in to this new, albeit temporary, way of working life, employers are questioning what they should be doing to comply with the law. Here we explore employer’s duties and practical steps that might help ensure legal compliance and minimise the risk of injury.

Employer’s duties to employees using computer equipment

In the UK, employers have a duty to comply with the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 to protect employees from any risks associated with Display Screen Equipment (DSE) (i.e. computers and laptops).

The DSE Regulations only apply to employers whose workers regularly use DSE for continuous periods of an hour or more, which will apply to the majority of office workers.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identifies risks including fatigue, eye strain, upper limb problems and backache from overuse or improper use of DSE. These problems can also be experienced from poorly designed workstations or work environments. The causes can be due to a combination of factors.

Employers’ main duties under the DSE Regulations are to:

  1. assess the workstation and reduce the risks e.g. by providing adjustable chairs and monitors;
  2. provide information, instruction and training to employees on the risks associated with using DSE equipment; including guidance on how to set up their workstation correctly.

Further information on employer’s DSE duties can be found here.

Long-term home workers

For those people who are working at home on a long-term basis, the risks associated with using DSE equipment must be controlled according to the HSE. This includes doing home workstation assessments which are usually carried out by DSE-trained employees such as office managers.

Temporary home workers

The HSE says there is no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily. Employers do not need to carry out home workstation assessments for temporary home workers.

COVID-19 home workers – somewhere in between?

The HSE has not defined ‘long-term’ or ‘temporary’ in the context of home working. With offices closed in accordance with Government guidance, and the current suggestion that these measures will be reviewed every three weeks, is it possible to define COVID-19 home working as either temporary or long-term? Probably not yet, but if homeworking is likely to extend beyond the initial three-week period, employers do need to consider what, if anything they need to do.

Practical tips

Employers will not be able to carry out home workstation assessments in person as this is not an essential reason, as defined by the government, to leave your home.

Instead, employers can provide employees with advice on completing their own basic assessment at home. The HSE has a practical workstation checklist that may help them. There is also NHS guidance on correct workstation postures which could be issued to employees. If an employee is unsure about how to set up their workstation, they could send a photo to their employer for further guidance.

Employees should be encouraged to adjust their workstations by using items such as books to raise the height of a monitor or a cushion to raise the height of the chair.

Breaks away from a home workstation

When working in an office, there are natural breaks away from workstation that we don’t think about e.g. walking to the printer, the kitchen or washroom and we may go for a walk at lunch.

As these no longer apply, employers should be advising home workers to consciously take breaks away from their workstations.

The HSE acknowledges the need to protect home workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and has provided useful guidance. Employees should be advised to take simple steps to reduce the risks from display screen work such as:

  • breaking up long spells of DSE work with rest breaks (at least 5 minutes every hour) or changes in activity - short frequent breaks are more effective than long infrequent breaks
  • avoiding awkward, static postures by regularly changing position
  • getting up and moving or doing stretching exercises
  • avoiding eye fatigue by changing focus or blinking from time to time

Many home workers will also be homeschooling their children, and possibly sitting for even longer periods than usual. Employers should factor other aspects of home life into the advice they provide to employees.  

What about employees who have special DSE equipment needs?   

The HSE advises that employers should try to meet those needs where possible and allow employees to take home equipment such as keyboards, mouse and riser. However, at the time of writing, the current guidance makes it unlikely equipment could be obtained from the office.

Where special DSE needs require to be met, employers should consider ordering equipment online for delivery to the employee or allow home workers to order the special equipment themselves, subject to their employer’s approval.

Stress and Mental Health

The HSE acknowledges that personal wellbeing is important for lone workers with no direct supervision or anyone to help them if things go wrong. Workers may feel disconnected, isolated or abandoned. In the context of mental health, employers have the same duties to long-term and temporary home workers.

Employers can reduce the risks of stress-related illnesses by doing the following:

  • Put procedures in place to keep in direct contact with homeworkers and recognise signs of stress as early as possible.
  • Hold regular team meetings (preferably via video call) and contact with line managers will help.
  • Make it clear how employees can get assistance and guidance if they need it (e.g. via a contact in the HR team or information on the Intranet).

The current situation is unprecedented, but legal obligations persist. If businesses need help in understanding their duties to employees, feel free to get in touch.