Wherever people work it is
important to reduce the risk of injury. Teleworking throws up new
challenges, as it raises the chances of people working in places which are
not tailor-made as workplaces.
It is possible both to ignore
the issues, and on the other hand to exaggerate the novelty and dangers of
working outside of the traditional workplace. In this article we look at
how UK organisations are responding, and to put the dangers into
organisations' lack of policies
A recent survey of mainly large (1000+ workers) organisations
by Kantaka Ltd found that while 73% of
them allowed teleworking (at least to some extent) less than half of them
have a formal policy to cover it.
And where health and safety
issues are addressed, e.g. by an initial safety audit of the proposed
workplace and/or advice on health and safety, less than a quarter had a process for
However, in nearly all cases
organisations provided the equipment (both IT and furniture) for
teleworking. This may show some awareness of the need for good practice in
the set-up, but without the proper checks and risk assessment, it falls
short of meeting the legal requirements.
Two aspects of the risks involved in a casual approach to
telework implementation highlighted in the report are:
in an increasingly litigious
world, employees are increasingly willing to sue employers who fail to
meet their legal duty of care to employees
deaths and accidents in the
workplace have steadily declined over the years. But deaths and accidents
in the home are showing a steady increase. So if employers are sending
workers home to work, they are putting them into an environment with its
own set of risks and dangers.
So what do employers (and
employees) need to watch out for?
Here's a Flexibility
checklist of issues to consider:
Making an initial risk assessment
This may be, but need not be, carried out by a specialist.
Self-assessment carried out by the teleworker may be appropriate,
particularly where teleworking activity is limited, or where intrusion
into the home is not welcomed. What is important is that a coherent and
comprehensive audit/assessment is made, and that appropriate action is
taken if required.
Understanding the legal framework
In particular, the Health and Safety at Work
Act (1974) and the regulations covering working with screens
The general principle is that
the same regulations that apply in a "normal" workplace also
apply at home, and the employer is bound to act in accordance with them.
Create an ergonomically sound working environment
Many aspects of this are covered in the European Display
Screen Directive 90/270/EEC - covering items such as nature and brightness
of screen, position and characteristics of keyboard, lighting levels,
furniture and posture.
Room temperature and ventilation are also important, as in
Watching the time!
Certain regulations about working time will apply: from
the Working Time Directive to taking screen breaks at intervals.
The key difference teleworking may bring about is that the
worker is likely to be on their own - so ensuring this happens is likely
to be a combination of self-discipline and remote management procedures.
It is important to ensure that equipment is safe, and that
the available sockets and power supply are adequate for the IT installed.
Care is also needed to ensure that there are no trailing cables that might
constitute a danger.
Other equipment hazards
Hazards may arise from use or misuse of other equipment,
such as using a telephone continuously without a headset, or using a
mobile phone while driving.
Third party safety
The risk assessment and working practices should also take
account of potential danger to third parties - whether other household
members or visitors.
Employers also need to
ensure that they supply adequate first
aid provisions for homeworkers (what this
is will vary with the job)
As in a traditional workplace,
training in health and safety issues is advisable for teleworkers -
covering issues as outlined here and contained in the telework H&S
monitoring and follow-up
||Employees have a duty to
report and keep a record of work-related
accidents, injuries and incidents.
Employers also must not see health &
safety as a one-off concern at the time of set-up. They must see that
periodic assessments are made, and also when new equipment is introduced
or the nature or location of the teleworking are modified.
These considerations apply primarily to home-based
teleworking. Many people who telework take advantage of "location
independence", and telework from a variety of locations. These might
be (third party) telecentres (such as telecottages, neighbourhood offices,
etc). In this case, responsibility might be shared, to different degrees
according to circumstances, between the telecentre owners and the
In other locations, such as hotels, cafés, airport
lounges etc it is not possible to specify the types of furniture and
facilities available. However, an employer should provide guidance for
employees about teleworking in such places,. This should include
guidelines for the use of laptops, which as well as health and safety
advice will cover security issues - both data security and the physical
security of portable devices
Keeping things in perspective
We know that some people do get very anxious about what
they see as the negative impacts of teleworking. But teleworking hasn't
"invented" any new places to work. People have worked in homes
from time immemorial. Working in hotels is hardly new. There has been
considerable debate about whether new regulations are needed to cover a
new work phenomenon. But so far, it's mainly been a case of seeing which
of the existing rules apply.
But it is also important to keep the nature of the
risks in perspective. Many industries have health and safety guidance for
staff working at sites other than the base workplace. Take for example, a
camera crew working on location, for which there are special
considerations and special training is needed. For example, a cameraman
might be filming while walking backwards up a mountain, or in a busy
street. And special consideration has to be given to trailing cables
across streets, to ensure the safety of the crew and members of the
public. Mobile teleworkers, by contrast, generally face non-immediate
risks, such as perhaps bad posture or working in bad light, which may
result in harm in the long term if done persistently. (Incidentally, the European
Display Screens Directive does not apply to "portable systems not in
prolonged use at a workstation".)
Another factor to be borne in mind is the extent of the
teleworking. Teleworking full-time at home is far from the norm for most
teleworkers. Usually it's part-time - around 1.5 days per week seems to be
about the average in surveys. And then there are many more who telework on
a supplementary or "ad hoc" basis, catching up on work after
hours and at weekends, or maybe the occasional half-day to write a
critical report in peace and quiet.
This is not to say one should be casual about the health
and safety issues. Quite the contrary. It indicates a need for a
wide-ranging general policy to cover the occasional and after-hours people
who probably don't even think of themselves as teleworkers.
But what it does mean is that people should not get the
idea that teleworking produces some kind of health and safety nightmare,
where all kinds of bad practices happen, leading to inevitable RSI, deep
vein thrombosis and children choking themselves on PC cables.
It's a question of addressing the issues sensibly and
systematically: assessing the risks and addressing them at the appropriate
The comments in this article are generic in
nature and are not intended to constitute legal advice in any form. For
particular implementations, you are strongly advised to make your own
enquiries in the particular context of your teleworking circumstances.