We are nearly one year on since the UK government announced its first national "lock-down", yet here we are in February 2021 and the government guidance is still for anyone who can work effectively at home to do so. Whilst coronavirus vaccinations are being rolled out across the country, in all likelihood working from home will continue to be the norm for many UK office-based workers for some time yet. This post gives a reminder to employers about their health and safety obligations towards homeworkers.
What are an employers' H&S obligations to homeworkers?
Under section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, and homeworkers are no exception.
We have included links below to the ACAS and HSE guidance for employers on the health and safety of homeworkers, which are helpful reminders of an employer's obligations, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
What are the obligations on homeworking employees?
Homeworkers must take responsibility for their own health and safety too.
Employers should encourage employees to bring any physical or mental health risks they are facing to the attention of their managers. Employees should also undertake that they will maintain any office equipment which they buy themselves or are provided with, and that they will use equipment carefully and in line with instructions provided. Employees should also carry out a self-assessment of their workspace and homeworking equipment and flag any risks to their employer. Encouraging employees to take these steps will help an employer to identify any risks their employees are facing and then to identify the reasonable steps they need to take to remove or minimise the risks.
Do employers have to carry out a risk assessment?
Employers have a legal duty to carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments of their employees' work activities, including those working from home. Employers should then use this to take measures to remove hazards or minimise the risks. Employers should review their risk assessments regularly.
Of course, at the moment, employers cannot visit employees' homes to carry out risk assessments. The HSE guidance recognises that, and states that employers should take alternative measures, such as providing information to employees about working safely from home, and asking homeworkers to carry out a self-assessment of their workspace and equipment.
Employers should be particularly mindful of the risks to employees of using display screen equipment (DSE). Whilst the HSE guidance states there is not an increased risk for those working from home temporarily working with DSE, there is an increased risk for those working from home on a long term basis. Given a lot of employees have been working from home for the better part of a year now, employers should ask employees to carry out an assessment of their use of DSE. The HSE website provides a checklist which employers could ask employees to complete.
Do employers have to provide employees with office equipment and contribute towards homeworking expenses?
There is no legal obligation for employers to provide employees with equipment for homeworking, and we have seen a range of approaches taken by employers. Whilst it is not mandatory, the guidance provided by ACAS states that it is important for employees to have the equipment that they need for working from home, and therefore employers should consider this carefully. Some employers have allowed employees to borrow equipment from the office; some have sent employees equipment such as ergonomic chairs, desks and IT equipment; others have agreed to reimburse employees for their expenditure on office equipment upon receipt of evidence. Supporting employees in this way may help an employer demonstrate they are acting in line with their duty of care to their employees' health and safety. Whichever approach is taken, employers should make sure that they have policies in place which set out the obligations on both parties.
If an employer is supplying equipment to employees, they should make sure it is suitable for its purpose, maintained in good working order and inspected regularly. Given employers are not currently able to visit an employee's home to inspect equipment, employers should require employees to do so, and provide instructions if necessary. Employers should also make sure that the equipment is covered under the employer's insurance policy or, if that is not possible, they should ask employees to cover the equipment under their own home insurance policies. Some employers have offered to pay any premium an employee is charged for the increased coverage.
Employers should be mindful that, from an employment law perspective, the provision of equipment to an employee with a disability (or reimbursement of the employee's expenses) may be considered a reasonable adjustment under section 20 of the Equality Act 2010.
Employers are also not legally obligated to contribute towards the increased expenses of employees who are working from home, such as increased electricity costs. Some employers have agreed to meet these costs (or a proportion of them). If employers choose to do so they should have a clear policy in place setting out the procedure for reimbursement, and employees should be reminded that the employee's domestic supply remains their responsibility, not the employers.
What about when the office re-opens?
It is obviously important that employers keep up-to-date on government guidance on how to create a safe workplace when employees start returning to the office.
The government is frequently updating its guidance on working safely, across different types of workplace. The current guidance for office-based employers recommends employers carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment of the office, increase the frequency of office cleaning, require visitors to wear face coverings, encourage social distancing, review office ventilation, promote the use of 'test and trace', and turn away anyone with symptoms.
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