Working from home safely during a pandemic
As Australia commences wide-scale closures of schools and businesses, many organisations face significant challenges in introducing widespread working-from-home arrangements.
In addition to substantial challenges from a business continuity and IT perspective, there is also the duty of care owed by employers to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of staff when being directed or encouraged to work from home.
Do you need to determine if it is safe for your staff to work from home?
The short answer is yes. If your organisation intends to direct or encourage staff to work from home, for any substantial period of time, then a key question is whether it is safe for staff to do so.
Many businesses that already have working-from-home arrangements in place may not find this a challenging issue. However, for some organisations it may be necessary to take additional steps to determine whether their staff are exposed to risks and, if so, how they will be controlled. You should not assume that all workers have a separate area in the house where they can set up a work station and safely work without exposing themselves to risks to their health and safety.
This obligation exists whether or not the requirement to work from home is voluntary or at the direction of the employer, for example, arising from a government recommendation.
Further, any injury suffered in the course of employment, including while working from home, is likely to result in a potential exposure to a workers’ compensation claim.
How do you assess the risks?
There are a number of ways an organisation can assess whether there are any home-based risks that need to be controlled for their staff.
The selection of risk assessment approaches will depend on factors including:
- whether the organisation already has a policy in place and tools for undertaking home-based work risk assessments;
- whether, within the time frames imposed by a government recommendation or direction for an office shut down, those tools can be used or not;
- the level of experience for affected staff in assessing the risks; and
- the resources of the organisation to manage any risks identified, including provision of an alternative work location.
Some organisations may be able to use internal or external resources to undertake a home assessment for affected staff. However, more likely in the current situation where there are widespread work from home arrangements needed, the most practicable approach will be to ask staff to perform their own self-assessment of the risks at home.
This step can be done in a number of ways, including by way of:
- an employee online/email survey;
- an employee-completed checklist, potentially with photos of the work station; and
- an informal discussion with affected workers.
Matters that should be assessed include:
- whether there is an ergonomic work space with good ventilation, light and no electrical hazards;
- whether there is emergency medical assistance that can accessed;
- whether there is a readily accessible communication system in place between the organisation and the worker;
- whether the home has smoke detectors fitted, fire extinguishers available and a first aid kit; and
- whether safety masks and other hygiene products (such as sanitiser) should be supplied to workers if interaction with third parties is still going to be required.
Instruction and training of workers
It may be that the direction to work from home will be a new arrangement for many of your staff.
In such a case, it is important that you provide sufficient information and instruction to your staff on how they should work safely while at home. In the current circumstances, this instruction should take into account the impact on some workers potentially having to look after children, who are at home due to day care and school closures.
The instruction can be by way of a group briefing, emails or more detailed one-on-one instruction. It will also be important to reiterate the access to Employee Assistance Programs during this period, and the potential psychological impact on staff when working in isolation.
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