According to the Office for National Statistics (14 January 2021) 32% of the UK workforce were working remotely instead of at their normal place of work – for many a radical change to their working practice and lifestyle enforced by the current pandemic.
The move to home working has the potential to materially increase the risk to a worker's health, safety and welfare. Computer work is a known source of RSI or upper limb disorders and other musculo-skeletal complaints. These risks arise not only from the change in equipment or lack of suitable equipment but also additional risks arising from social isolation, stress, and lack of supervision.
An employer has a duty of care to protect its workers from the health risks of working with display screen equipment (DSE). This includes PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones. This duty applies equally to those working from home as at work. In order to comply with this duty an employer should have regard to the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 which were amended and updated in 2002 (DSE Regulations 2002).
Under these regulations and in normal times a move to homeworking would have required the employer to perform a risk assessment or a review of any existing risk assessment due to the resulting changes to the workstation and working environment.
In response to the unique circumstances presented by the pandemic the HSE issued guidance for employers in March 2020 stating that there was 'no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily' and as such employers did not need to ask workers to carry out home workstation assessments. The HSE went onto say that during any period of temporary home working, employers needed to regularly discuss arrangements with their workers and if the work was adversely affecting their health, safety and welfare, then employers should take appropriate steps. In addition, the HSE stated that employers should provide workers with advice on completing their own 'basic assessment' at home.
The meaning of 'temporarily' was not defined by the HSE but it is likely that this guidance was designed to address a period of weeks of homeworking rather than months.
For those working at home in the longer term the HSE stated that the employer should be required to explain to the worker how to carry out a 'full workstation assessment' and provide appropriate equipment and advice on control measures. With the passage of time since March 2020 there will be an increasing expectation and duty on the part of the employer to have undertaken these steps.
The HSE Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) 'Work with Display Screen Equipment' provides guidance for employers in how to comply with their obligations under the DSE Regulations 2002 including how to conduct a full workstation assessment. This was written at a time when the vast majority of DSE users were work based. The guidance recommended that work-based risk assessments were carried out by health and safety personnel or other in-house staff who had specific DSE training. The assessment process included taking account of the views of individual users about their workstations as part of the assessment. For those working at home the HSE acknowledged that it would not be practicable for an employer to send someone to the address of a homeworker to conduct a risk assessment and proposed that the employer train the homeworker to undertake their own. In the pandemic the 'self-assessment' route has turned out to be not only the most practical solution but also the safest option.
The effectiveness of a homeworker's own assessment will depend on the quality of the training and information provided by the employer. That training and information would need to include not only health and safety relating to DSE use (such as the need to maintain good posture and take frequent breaks and plan work routines) but also establishing clear lines of communication for reporting and resolving ergonomic issues experienced with workstations and for signs or symptoms of health problems. The HSE acknowledged in their guidance that additional training would be required for homeworkers as they are working unsupervised and might be more liable to pick up bad working habits.
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