Three homeworking risks employers must assess

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The COVID-19 lockdown has turned many Irish businesses into remote working operations. With little time to prepare employees for working from home, most employers focused on ensuring that their IT systems had the capacity to facilitate the shift.

We’re now approaching Phase 3 of the Government’s Roadmap to Reopening, meaning it’s time to consider the long-term impact of maintaining your remote work arrangements. Not only that, you also need to address the risks that come with a remote workforce.

To help you begin your remote working assessment, we cover health & safety, data protection, and working time in this article.

Assessing health & safety risks

Ireland’s health & safety legislation requires employers to ensure the safety of employees as far as is reasonably practicable while they’re at work. However, if your staff are currently working from their homes, it becomes a workplace. That means you need to take action to prevent any injuries or ill-health that might reasonably occur while your employees work from home.

Assessing the safety of the employees’ workstations at home is a good place to start. This will ensure that the risk of injury is minimised and that you have complied with your obligations under the health & safety legislation.

Health & safety laws also require you to carry out a risk assessment to identify workplace risks and hazards and to put steps in place to minimise these risks. This process should include feedback from the employee in question about their home workstation or setup.

Here are some questions to check off as part of this process:

  • Are there particular hazards in the home that pose potential risks?
  • Does the workstation have a suitable desk, chair, and screen?
  • Is the room well ventilated and bright enough to complete the work being carried out?
  • Have cables or other trip hazards been addressed?

Your risk assessment should also consider the needs of vulnerable staff. For example, older workers, pregnant workers, and workers with underlying medical conditions must be carefully considered. Employees who live alone may also need help with minimising lone worker risks.

At this point, it would be useful to issue or reissue a health & safety policy to your staff as a means of reminding them of their duty to protect their own safety while at work. That’s because legislation requires employees to take reasonable care to protect their own health and safety and not to engage in behaviour that will endanger themselves or others.

Claims founded on health & safety breaches are also common. They’re often accompanied by personal injury actions and represent a detrimental financial and reputational risk for employers. To defend against such claims, you must be able to show that you’ve taken reasonable steps and consulted with employees on appropriate ways to mitigate risks in their homes and workstations.

Data protection and employee obligations

Putting IT systems in place to facilitate remote work was the early pandemic priority for most employers. With those adjustments out of the way, now is the time to complete any remaining IT risks and remind employees of their obligations under confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts. In a homeworking situation, the risk of disclosing confidential information is particularly high.

Mobile devices provided to staff should have secure encryption and authentication procedures built in. Regarding data protection, the same rules apply equally whether the data processing takes place on-site or on an employee’s mobile device. Remote staff who process data may need to be reminded of their obligations under the GDPR principles and any measures they need to adopt to ensure that data is securely stored.

Working time

Recent surveys have highlighted the difficulties remote workers have in separating their home and work lives. Working from home introduces stresses associated with social isolation and setting boundaries between work life and personal life. To reduce this risk of social isolation, you should encourage regular contact and interaction between colleagues and stay in touch with remote workers yourself. If possible, provide training for managers on how to identify and handle the signs of staff anxiety caused by isolation.

Many employees have also reported working longer hours since their move home. Under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, it’s up to you, the employer, to ensure your remote workers don’t work over and above the daily and weekly hours set down in the legislation. Arguably, the legislation is no longer fit for purpose as a lot of modern work is flexible already. However, as the law stands, it’s your duty nonetheless to ensure your staff take their statutory breaks and rest periods.

A recent EU decision also confirmed that employers must put an appropriate recording system in place to keep track of their employees’ hours. Given that the WRC receives more complaints under working time laws than under any other employment legislation, you should ensure that this particular risk is immediately addressed.

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