HR Legal – The Coronavirus Impact
As schools and premises close across the UK, thousands of parents will be joining those already working from home as part of the Coronavirus social distancing measures.
In a little under a week, employers have had to set up millions of employees for homeworking across the UK. For companies that have already embraced homeworking, the measure may mean no more than expanding an existing flexible-working option to more employees.
For most firms, however, the immediate challenge is logistical. Assuming that the nature of the work allows for home working, firms will need to implement the technological and communication solutions to employees homes with immediate effect.
Companies that operate in the cloud will have a head start, as business-critical systems will be accessible from anywhere. If a business does not have a cloud-based or thin client solution in place, they will need to cobble together workarounds that will be massively disruptive to their businesses.
In the initial frenzy of getting employees up and running, businesses may spare little thought for the Health and Safety at Work regulations.
However, employers must waste no time in familiarizing themselves with the regulations that apply to homeworking and taking steps to make sure their approach to homeworking is compliant.
For a company with little experience of homeworking, the immediate and time-critical logistical challenges can seem overwhelming. Under these circumstances it is important to avoid the ‘more haste, less speed’ trap.
A poorly-implemented homeworking plan could result in data breaches, injuries to employees, poor performance and low morale.
Legal Impact of COVID-19
The regulations state that employers must “make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work”.
If your employee’s job is desk-based, you will need to carry out a risk assessment of their working environment.
The assessment will need to confirm the safety and suitability of the employee’s desk, chair, lighting, computer, monitor, mouse, keyboard and any other equipment you supply.
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It would make little sense for the employer to carry out the risk assessment in person, given the reason for homeworking is to maintain social distancing during the pandemic. Even in ‘normal’ times, businesses are not usually expected to visit employees’ homes to carry out an in-person assessment.
In most cases, the employee can carry out a self-assessment under the guidance of the employer.
It would be best practice to provide homeworkers with a structured questionnaire that they can fill out, sign and return. The questionnaire should address any aspect relating to the safety of the homeworking environment, and also the individual needs of the employee.
The assessment should also address any equipment that the employee will use in the course of their work - particularly if that equipment has been supplied by the employer.
If equipment you either supply (or approve as part of the assessment) causes your employee injury or illness, you could find yourself facing an injury claim.
You should make best endeavours to produce a risk assessment questionnaire as soon as possible. Self-assessment templates are available online.
You can always create a more bespoke assessment questionnaire at a later date, once the dust has settled.
If any risks are identified, you must take prompt action to remove or manage these risks. Your options could include providing suitable equipment (like ergonomic office chairs, wrist rests and phone headsets) and offering more flexible working hours.
Companies should also take action to monitor and assist workers with existing health issues, including mental health conditions.
For some, homeworking can be a lonely, challenging experience. Stress is also commonly reported, as homeworkers struggle to adapt their work routines to a new setup and environment.
Although studies show that homeworkers are generally happier and more productive, it is important to recognise that this data will be a largely self-selected sample of people who have asked for or chosen homeworking.
Many workers will be homeworking for the first time, and many will miss the social interactions and stability that their work provided.
Employers’ duty to protect their employees extends to mental health, meaning that you should take action to help monitor and manage mental health risks, including stress. Regular, open communication is an easy way for your company to help achieve this.
Check Employers’ Liability Insurance
On a more technical note, employers of newly-homeworking staff must check that their employers’ liability insurance covers homeworking.
You should check the details of the level of cover provided to ensure your policy is fit for purpose.
In the event that a homeworker is injured at home, in the course of their employment, the employer could be liable. If the company’s insurance does not cover homeworking, or the company has failed to carry out the risk assessments and other steps required under the policy, the company itself may have to foot the bill for any injury compensation payout.
The worst case scenario for the business and for an injured employee is that the company is unable to pay, or is forced towards financial ruin to cover the cost of a worker’s much needed compensation.
Employees’ safety must be the first priority, but this manifests both in terms of reducing the risk of infection and in terms of more general workplace hazards. During the most acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis, employers cannot afford to rush, cut corners or take risks regarding the implementation of homeworking.