Working from home and keeping safe and healthy
Working from home? Whether you are an employer or employee, here’s what you need to know about health and safety duties, and the physical concerns that can arise from remote working.
With so many people still working from home, and likely to do so for some time to come, we’ve teamed up with John Pryce from Midlands Physiotherapy Ltd to bring you some essential advice on both the legal and health aspects of remote working. We’ll be giving the legal viewpoint, whilst John comments on how his practice has changed as a result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, with more employees accessing his services for advice on physical conditions and injuries which have arisen or worsened as a result of working from home. He will also be providing some useful tips on how to avoid bad practices when working from home in order to reduce/avoid the risk of injury.
Coronavirus has changed the world in many ways and one important change has been to the way we work. The pandemic has resulted in lengthy lockdowns which forced many employers to send their workforce home to work, which has now become the new normal. When considering the speed at which the move to remote working happened it is not surprising that health and safety considerations may have been overlooked by some employers, the impact of which has resulted in an increased number of employees suffering from physical conditions/injuries.
Despite the government recently publishing its roadmap out of lockdown, easing restrictions so more businesses can reopen with employees returning to work, some office based employees will continue to work from home for some time yet. The lockdown has also demonstrated to many employers that working from home has been productive for some of its staff and some employers are now introducing a more flexible approach where employees can split their working week between home and the office. Therefore as this practice will remain, it is vital that employers and employees continue to adhere to their health and safety responsibilities in respect of remote working in order to reduce the risk it can create.
By law, employers have a statutory duty for the health and safety of all employees including those working from home, which is to set up and implement a safe system of work. There is also a common law duty. An employer still has the same duty of care for employees working from home as it does for its office-based employees.
The starting point is to carry out a risk assessment before the employee commences working from home. However, the usual health and safety assessments have been impractical due to the pandemic and at such short notice so, in the absence of this, employers should provide employees with detailed guidance and advice. The Health and Safety Executive provides guidance on risk assessments for home workers, including a checklist for display screen equipment. ACAS also offer guidance on employers and employees responsibilities when working from home which can be accessed here.
The aim of the risk assessment is to highlight areas of concern in relation to health & safety while working from home, as well as to help an employer decide on the right level support required for an employee’s welfare. The exact nature of the assessment will depend on the type of work which is being undertaken at home and should highlight if there are any risks which arise and what measures need to be implemented to avoid or reduce the risk.
For employees whose work is largely on computers the risk assessment includes checking the workstation, space, lighting, flooring, ventilation, desk, chair, computer, data security and anything else required for the employee to work safely and effectively. The employer should then work with the employee to ensure that this risk is either removed or reduced as much as possible. This may involve providing guidance and/or equipment on how to effectively work from home. It would also be prudent for employers to engage in regular dialogue with their employees about safe systems of work and to encourage employees to communicate any concerns.
If no risk assessment has been carried out and an employee does suffer an injury the employer could be faced with a personal injury claim in which the employee claims that their employer has breached its duty of care towards them. Therefore it is imperative that risk assessments are carried out and/or guidance is provided and both are reviewed regularly and updated.
In this article we have only discussed the physical challenges of working from home, however employers must also consider and act on psychological challenges that working in isolation can create and consider how these can be supported.
It is important to note that employees also have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety at work and employers should be encouraging employees to report any risks or if any working arrangements need to be changed.
Midlands Physiotherapy Ltd is a physiotherapy practice based in Kidderminster, established for 18 years and run by John Pryce with help from his team of therapists. John has over 20 years’ experience treating and managing injuries and has spent time working in the Premier Football League with Birmingham City Football Club.
Like most people during the pandemic, the team has seen many changes in both life and work in the last 12 months.
The first major change, during the first lockdown, meant that consultations were for the first time conducted online rather than face to face. However what has changed most is the types of conditions they are seeing in great numbers in the last few months, which are a direct result of people working from home.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people contacting the clinic with neck and shoulder problems, which is unsurprising when you consider the difference between office and homeworking life. People are now spending most of their day sitting at their computer without taking the breaks that a normal day at the office would provide, such as going out for lunch, walking around the office to do things or talk to colleagues at their desks and driving to and from work. As a result of this they are finding increasingly that people are sitting for long periods of time with little or no thought given to their workstation set up at home.
Obviously when the government initially gave the instruction to work from home many businesses rushed to send their workers home so that they could work as best they could under the circumstances, with no one knowing how long this would last, but hoping for a swift return to work. Roll forward 12 months and many people are still working from home due to the pandemic. The gradual toll of sitting in the dining chair or at the kitchen table has left its mark on many patients that the clinic is now seeing.
Prolonged sitting and working at home can give rise to a number of injuries, including repetitive strain type injuries. The therapists are seeing more patients with necks and shoulders which are severely restricted, which can result in a reduced range of motion and long-term pain. People are not sure how to sit correctly at their chosen work station at home which often is the kitchen table. The usual corporate office is more ergonomically designed for working at a desk, and equipment such as chairs and desks are therefore much better, whereas a kitchen table is plainly not designed to be a workstation. Something as simple as not sitting correctly can cause all sorts of problems!!
Another consideration is that sitting in one position for a long time can result in muscle fatigue, which can then lead to injury.
The positions of the shoulder blades while sitting at a desk is also important to avoid injury. John is seeing patients who are leaning forward too much, looking at a laptop in an incorrect position placed on a lap, working on the sofa. This keeps the neck in a forward position, lengthening muscles in the neck and thus potentially causing pain and discomfort. A very simple exercise can be to move your shoulder blades as close together as you can, a couple of times a day—this will stretch the front of your chest and can help enormously.
At work you're likely to have conversations with colleagues where you can get out of your seat, walk to the other side of the office, go to the toilet or be on the tea run. However, much of this has gone out of the window when working from home. Try to replicate this social aspect—even if it’s just to chat to the dog or make yourself a coffee—moving away from your desk is important, and try and avoid working late into the evening, just because there's very little else to do during lockdown.
One surprising problem that John and his team have found, is an increase in calf and achilles tendon injuries because people are no longer wearing their normal footwear, creating foot pain and reduced mobility. Again, a very simple exercise of stretching your calf muscles at the bottom of the stairs on a daily basis will help to reduce the problems associated with these conditions.
Midlands Physiotherapy have formulated the WORKSAFE@HOME Program, a physiotherapy program devised for employees working from home with expert one-to-one bespoke training to help prevent any injuries and repetitive strain conditions (RSI).