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Taking Health and Safety seriously in teleworking

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 perspective.

Survey highlights 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 follow-up checks.

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 (VDUs) apply.

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 any office.

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.

Electrical safety

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. 

First Aid

Employers also need to ensure that they supply adequate first aid provisions for homeworkers (what this is will vary with the job) 

Training 

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 policy.

Reporting, 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 customer.

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 level.


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.

Sources of further information:

HSE Health and Safety for Homeworking  
(or see our summary article on this)

The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has several documents available online, covering general issues for teleworking, organisational risk assessment and premises risk assessment.

For further information about the report by Kantaka contact Chris McEvoy chris@kantaka.org.uk 
Tel: +44 (0)1279 466164 

Innovisions Canada/Canadian Telework Association has an excellent page of links to telework and H&S resources

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