Over half of UK workers are expected to work remotely in 20201 and, with the assistance of technological advances, both employers and employees are reaping the benefits of flexible working practices. Cutting out commuting time and saving office space are among many of the benefits remote working has to offer - but with such working presenting its own health and safety challenges are employers fully aware of their obligations?
What are remote workers?
Remote working is a way of working at a distance which allows employees to work away from the employer's designated premises. Remote workers may be based at home, be mobile and required to travel for work, or able to connect into the office from around the world.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Put simply, there is no distinction between remote and office workers when it comes to employers' health and safety obligations. As an employer, you are responsible for an employee's safety, health and welfare so far as reasonably practicable, whether they are working in the office or from the comfort of their own home2 3.
Most employers will be familiar with the requirement to risk assess office space – checking employees' workstations, ensuring sufficient space and lighting, desks and work equipment.
The way employers manage the risks associated with remote workers will very much depend on a number of factors. This may be impacted by the amount of remote workers the business has, their geographical spread, whether any travel may be required of them, and the activities staff are undertaking remotely.
What are the challenges?
Remote working plainly brings its own unique challenges as employers have less control over supervision and monitoring, and ensuring the safety of workers when they are not office-based.
Remote workers may present more distinct issues but there are a number of common risks which employers should be alert to4:
The work environment
Most employers are familiar with the risks traditional office space poses; however for employees working from home, in different locations or who are required to travel, all present unique risks. Employers are challenged with ensuring they take reasonable precautions when it comes to remote workers, whilst managing the correct balance in respecting worker's privacy.
Once an assessment of the risks is undertaken, employers should ensure there is a structured system in place to regularly consider the risks an employee's work environment presents. Circumstances change – for instance employees who work remotely from home may move locations – and employers should have procedures in place to respond to this.
As with office based equipment, employers should apply similar standards for remote workers' workstations and ensure employees have suitable workstations for the tasks they are undertaking.
Remote workers often rely on laptops and may need to transport such devices around if they are required to travel; this should be a consideration for employers when they are issuing equipment to remote workers to ensure that it is appropriate. If remote workers are required to use laptops for prolonged periods as they do not have a fixed workstation, employers should also be risk-assessing this and considering whether any additional accessories should be provided.
Remote workers may be out of sight, but employers should ensure that remote workers are taking regular screen breaks and consider the challenges presented when monitoring this from afar.
Remote and agile working can be of great benefit to employees and employers. Avoiding traffic, congestion and a lengthy commute are amongst some of the benefits remote workers reap. However, remote working brings its own challenges when it comes to mental wellbeing.
Remote workers may feel distanced from the business they work for and their colleagues, given they are distinctly separate to that working environment. Whilst some may find it difficult to adapt to a remote working environment which may result in them having more limited social contact, others may struggle to manage an effective work life balance – especially if their home is now doubling as their workplace. Remote workers may feel like "lone workers" if employers fail to achieve the correct balance and steps should be taken to ensure this is avoided.
Time management and isolation are two vital factors, which must be at the forefront for employers to consider for remote workers. With the Health and Safety Executive prioritising work-related stress5 as part of its Business Plan for 2019/206, employers need to remain alert to these less apparent, but equally important, risks.
Lone working is an issue across many businesses and industries– drivers, engineers, care workers, home workers, shop assistants - and employers must recognise the associated risks. 7.
It's important for employers to properly assess the individual risks posed to lone workers – it may be that they work at a fixed workplace, they may work on call, or they may be working overtime outside of normal hours. Whatever the individual circumstances are for lone workers, the consequences of failing to properly address the associated risks could be serious.
Mobile working requiring travel, which often runs in tandem with lone-working, inevitably presents some challenges employers must overcome. If employees are required to drive to locations, this in itself warrants employers to address their minds to the risks which may arise for employees, such as driving in bad weather and vehicle defects8.
Health and safety law applies to work activities on the road in the same way as it does to all work activities. Employers need to manage the risks to drivers as part of their health and safety arrangements. In particular, consideration of three areas: safe driver; safe vehicle; and safe journey will help an employer manage work-related road safety effectively9.
Effective management of work-related road safety helps reduce risk, no matter what size the organisation is. It could also result in, for example:
- fewer injuries to drivers
- reduced risk of work-related ill health
- reduced stress and improved morale
Takeaway tips for employers
With the trend of remote working showing no signs of slowing down, what steps should a responsible employer take to look after their employees, even when they have limited physical interaction?
- Ensure proper management systems are in place.
- Risk assessments are regularly undertaken and updated for any remote working employees.
- Consider whether self-assessments or a buddy reporting system are appropriate.
- Ensure remote workers are aware of the procedures for reporting any work-related incidents, or any health and safety concerns.
- Ensure appropriate measures are in place to effectively manage the wide ranging risks remote workers can face, and it is imperative this is an ongoing assessment.
- Prepare and implement a driving at work policy (where employees are required to drive for work).
Remote working will not always suit all employees, nor will it suit all businesses and industries. It is however undoubtedly a trend where, as advancements in technology continue, is only set to grow. A proactive approach by employers will ensure a happy, healthy and safe workforce!
2 As required by section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
9 Driving at work- Managing Work-related road safety- https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg382.pdf
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.