An employer's duty to provide a safe environment for employees working at home extends well beyond ensuring that staff have positioned their chair at an appropriate height and are free of any trip hazards. That's the message from the Workers' Compensation Commission and the NSW Supreme Court, who recently determined that an employer was liable for the tragic death of an employee as a result of a domestic violence incident whilst working from home.
This decision serves as a timely reminder for employers as to the critical importance of the requirement to ensure that staff working at home do so in a safe working environment, particularly during a global pandemic that has forced many Australians to be more flexible with their working arrangements.
The case – Workers' Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill
The Court in Hill found that the employer was liable for the murder of an employee by her partner as a result of domestic violence. In this case, it is believed that the victim was killed prior to her typical working hours, was in her bedroom and not dressed for work and was not in the act of performing duties for her employer. Despite all of this, both the Workers' Compensation Commission and the Court were satisfied that her death arose out of, or during the course of her employment and that her employment was a substantial contributing factor to her death under NSW Workers' Compensation legislation. Importantly perhaps in this case the victim and her partner were colleagues, both being employed by the same employer. The Court noted that while the home working environment was generally peaceful, it was certainly not the case on the morning when the employee was murdered as a result of false delusions on the part of her partner (and colleague) relating to both work and personal matters. The Court awarded the two dependent children, who made the claim, a sum in excess of $450,000, as well as a weekly allowance until they left full time education or turn 21, and ordered costs against the insurer.
What does this decision mean for employers and staff working from home?
Given the unusual circumstances, it may be of limited specific application, but with a COVID-19 induced requirement for more Australians to work from home than ever before, it is of increasing importance that employers and insurers alike are acutely aware of the potential ramifications of any injuries suffered by employees while working from home. The duty of care owed by an employer to an employee does not cease to exist merely because an employee is working from home.
This tragic case has emphasised the varied range of circumstances in which courts will apply common law and statutory tests which could render an employer/ liable for the injury or death of an employee at home.
It is important all employers review their safety checklists to ensure they adequately reflect the safety risks associated with the 'new normal' of staff performing work related duties from home.
Importantly, this should now also perhaps include an opportunity for employees to safely and confidentially divulge any concerns they have about the working environment that they are confronted with at home, including domestic violence and other, similar risks.
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.
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