What safeguarding duties actually exist for employers and their staff working remotely?

Well, it’s been over three years since we first heard the ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ mantra, and post lockdown has seen the continuance of employees working from home. Now is a good time for organisations to carry out some housekeeping. A review of working from home policies and practices is essential to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, staff are kept safe and well while working remotely.

A duty of care is the core of the employment relationship. Businesses are legally obliged to ensure a safe place of work. When working from home, this will always include the employee’s domestic premises.

Employers are caught by both statutory law and common law health and safety obligations. The logistics of this can be resource demanding, but, nonetheless, are a reality. Managers and supervisors can do a lot in supporting the company in delivering and supervising a ‘safe place of work’, even if remote.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is clear: an employer is responsible for an employee’s welfare, health and safety. This includes “the provision and maintenance of a working environment for employees that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work”.

Risk assessments

To appraise risk, a suitable and sufficient risk assessment should be carried out of all those work activities undertaken by the home worker, including display screen equipment, first aid and fire safety. This is a strict duty on employers and the cornerstone of health and safety management. In fact, prosecution of health and safety cases often involves a failure to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

ACAS guidance suggests that businesses that are unable to carry out a full risk assessment provide employees with information on working safely at home, and could require them to carry out a self assessment of their workspace and equipment. A simple policy to guide this process may prove invaluable.

At common law, employers have a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees and others whom it might be reasonably foreseen could be harmed because of their activities. Organisations must provide and maintain a safe place of work, a safe system of work and safe plant and machinery. And they can be vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their employees while working in the course of their employment.

Health and wellbeing

ACAS guidance says employers can help to reduce stress on employees by: making sure they know what is expected when working from home; helping them feel trusted and supported; agreeing regular contact; helping them avoid feeling left out and lonely; letting them know how to report IT issues; and explaining how to get help with their mental health.

Government guidance recommends the encouragement towards the creation of space, time and opportunities for connection, in addition to the maintenance of effective channels of virtual communication. Initiatives to keep in touch and maintain communication channels are imperative. Isolation should be broken down as much as possible. Teams and colleagues should be encouraged to maintain contact and have regular catch ups.

Employers are responsible for the equipment they supply and all normal safeguards should be maintained. Any domestic supply of electricity, including electrical sockets, remains the employee’s responsibility and they ought to be reminded of this.

All accidents or injuries at work must be reported to the employer. In addition, ACAS encourages businesses to look out for signs of domestic abuse, respond appropriately, support any employee experiencing domestic abuse and keep a record of incidents, reports and any action taken. Again, a clear policy will assist here.

In summary, care and due diligence on the employer’s part is key.