Work at home initiatives are on the rise, but the positive benefits they can offer employees and employers can often be offset by health and safety issues. We dive into 5 key questions that employers should consider to help reduce the risks involved in working from home.
The modern workplace is quite different to what it used to be – even 5 years ago. Rapid technological leaps and evolving attitudes regarding workplace structure and wellbeing have revolutionised not only how we work, but where.
Recent studies  suggest that as much as 50% of the UK workforce could be working remotely by 2020, and current trends predict that the figure is only going to increase in the coming years.
If managed correctly, there are many benefits to homeworking for both employers and their employees. These include reduced travel time and cost for the employee, along with a reduction inexpensive office space and better staff retention for the employer. Working from home could also offer opportunities for employees with mobility issues, or for expectant mothers who wish to continue working further into their pregnancy.
While homeworking covers jobs as diverse as food preparation, construction and accommodation provision, much of the growth has come from people using computers for significant periods. With improved connectivity, more people can access work networks from home as efficiently as they can in the office.
Research  has shown that prolonged use of computers leads to musculoskeletal symptoms including back, neck and shoulder pain.
However, the impact doesn’t stop there. A UK Government review of the evidence on the impacts of sedentary behaviour  identified increased use of computers for work as one reason why people spend more time sitting. The review found links between increased sitting and obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and even some cancers.
Getting to work for most people involves some level of physical activity, such as walking to the station or from the bus-stop. Even those who drive for work might walk from the carpark, up the stairs for a meeting, and to the canteen or café for lunch. For homeworkers, the risk of sitting at a desk – or slouching on a sofa – all day is higher, risks which are exacerbated by poor posture.
Employers’ responsibilities to provide a safe place of work do not stop when someone is working from home. As with any other work process, homeworking should be risk assessed and managed. This means more than giving an employee a nice bag for their laptop and checking their internet connection.
Here then, are 5 simple questions that employers should ask about their homeworking arrangements:
1. What furniture will the employee be using while working at home?
Slouching on the sofa might seem like a treat, but the natural curves of the spine are not supported and the neck is strained. Working like this for long periods could lead to back, neck and shoulder problems. A table is better, but is it the right height, and is there a suitable chair? Some organisations have the resources to send an assessor to an employee’s home to check furniture, but if you don’t, the alternative is to train the employee to do their own assessment. This must be backed up by the resources to provide additional furniture needed.
2. What equipment is the employee going to use?
While great for portability, you can’t achieve a good posture with a laptop or a tablet on their own. Either the screen will be too low, which can cause significant neck problems, or the keyboard will be too high, causing wrist and shoulder issues. A desktop PC, or the use of separate peripherals such as a keyboard, a large scale display, and a mouse will enable a more comfortable working position. Additionally, make sure homeworkers have the right software for the job and know how to use it.
3. Where will the employee be working?
Studies have shown that some people are more productive when surrounded by noise, so they might choose to work in a busy café, fuelled by good coffee and toasted sandwiches. However, it is much more difficult to get a good set-up away from a fixed environment. If a worker is mostly mobile they will need lightweight equipment, including peripherals such as a keyboard and a mouse.
4. Is the employee taking active breaks when they’re working from home?
Without meetings to attend or colleagues to eat lunch with, it’s too easy for a homeworker to spend all day indoors. How do you encourage a worker to be active remotely? Here’s one idea: if you have a weekly catch-up on the phone, suggest that employees don a hands-free headset so they can walk and talk at the same time (taking extra care if crossing a road). Some organisations encourage activity with competitions, where remote and office-based workers log their exercise on an app and compare achievements.
5. How are we going to train and support the employee?
If you have home-workers, have you thought how you will manage training, risk assessments and follow-up? It’s important to remember that, while they may not be working within in the office, homeworkers are entitled to the same protection as workers who are. While it’s true that a centralised office can allow employers to check up on an employees set-up and wellbeing, assessing the health and safety of staff working from home can still be achieved through online training.
Online DSE training and/or a specific working at home course can help users to understand health concerns that relate to the way they work, and offer advice that can help them avoid injury and poor health. Risk assessments can also allow both employers and employees to engage with each other to resolve equipment issues or find a more effective set-up that benefits the user.
But don’t forget other hazards associated with home working – electrical equipment must be managed, regularly tested and inspected; working hours need to be regulated and accidents need to be reported. As a result, homeworkers should know where to go to receive support, and employers should have a system in place to provide that support.
While an employer can’t control all aspect of an employees homeworking set-up, they have obligations in relation to the hazards of equipment that a worker needs to use, and the tasks they are expected to carry out. Always consider if you have appropriate processes in place, and how they can be improved.
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Disclaimer: This article is purely for informational purposes. For more information on workplace health and safety in the UK, visit the Health and Safety Executive.