Health and safety for home-based workers
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in People Management, 2001
Telework writer and consultant Ursula Huws recounts a disturbing tale of one enthusiastic employee who got his laptop out on the London tube to do some more work, dropped the machine on a neighbours foot, and promptly landed his employer, a major utility company, with a claim for damages for a broken toe. The passenger saw the companys logo on the machine, and sued. The story, Ursula Huws admits, may be unusual, but the issue it raises is certainly a real one. "Increasingly, it is being recognised that the employers responsibility for workers health and safety extends beyond the traditional workplace," she says.
An increasing number of major British companies have been through the tentative telework pilot stage in recent years and have now moved on to the situation where working at home, or from a home base, is now an established HR practice, very often as part of a wider set of flexible working options. The Office for National Statistics, which has been examining teleworking since 1997, gives official weight to the trend. For example the latest data set for homeworker teleworkers shows a 20% increase in the past two years, whilst a looser category, that of people who typically work at or from home at least one day a week using ICTs, has increased by 40% in the same period. Around 1.6 million people, or almost 6% of the labour force, are at least occasional teleworkers, it seems.
Whilst teleworking can offer considerable benefits to both companies and the individuals involved, a successful homeworking policy does have to get the details right, and health and safety is certainly one of the major items which should be on the agenda.
The Nationwide building society, for example, first looked at the issue when it was drawing up health and safety guidelines in the early 1990s, but developed a much more comprehensive approach in 1998-9, when a cross-divisional working group came up with detailed homeworking policies and procedures. Formal homeworking is currently primarily a feature of the organisations technical division, where the number of teleworkers has grown from 20 to 60 in a year, though a small number of staff in the retail recruiting team work from home and the Nationwide also has teams of home-based mobile staff who visit customers in mortgage arrears.
Would-be homeworkers are asked to complete, on a self-administered basis, a lengthy risk assessment of their home, a process which includes taking photographs of the proposed work area. Their application to telework requires approval both from their line manager and the Nationwides cross-divisional Homeworkers User Group and if the request is agreed a second stage risk assessment exercise is gone through once the home office is equipped and furniture in place. The Nationwide provides office desks and chairs for its home-based workers, and also provides PCs and printers. Pauline Henderson of corporate personnel, who led the homeworking policy team, describes one case where an employee was proposing to work from home using his existing laptop. "We said, no, if homeworking is to be done formally we cant condone using a laptop," she says.
When home-working is on the agenda, companies have to find out more about the homes where their staff are living than they would normally consider either necessary or indeed acceptable. This generally includes the contractual right to arrange to visit the home for health and safety purposes.
The Co-operative Bank spelled out the implications of this in its formal Teleworking agreement, signed with the bank union BIFU (now Unifi) in 1996 and still a model which other firms follow. Prior to teleworking starting, the agreement states that the home is to be surveyed by a member of the Co-ops group property department; the bank also reserves the right to send in a qualified electrician. Generally, the homeworker is responsible for paying the costs if electrical work is found to be needed for safety reasons, with the bank paying for modifications needed to install work-related equipment. Thereafter, the bank claims the right to make on-going home visits (prearranged and at a mutually convenient time) and union health and safety reps may also visit the home.
In the public sector, Kent County Council has been one of a handful of local authorities at the forefront of telework promotion. The local agreement on home-based working, first devised in 1996 and revised two years later, also covers access issues, which was seen as a sensitive issue by the trade union involved, Unison. Reasonable notice will normally be given to the member of staff, but Kent reserves the right to obtain urgent access to the home, where faulty equipment creates a serious health and safety issue (or means that the employee cannot work), for urgent security and audit purposes or more generally for occupational health and safety purposes.
At the Nationwide, the company also reserves the right to inspect the homes of their teleworking staff though Pauline Henderson says that in practice ways tend to be found to minimise the need for this: "Its a sensitive issue managers feel theyre intruding, " she points out, adding that the subject is even more delicate if the manager is male and the homeworker is female.
The DTIs helpful booklet Working Anywhere: Exploring telework for individuals and organisations reminds companies that their employer obligations under health and safety legislation do not disappear just because staff are ensconced in their own homes. The general duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of staff applies wherever they are working, albeit with the qualification as far as is reasonably practicable. The obligation to undertake a risk assessment of work activities also applies where employees are working from their homes.
For the detail, however, the place to turn is the HSEs twelve-page booklet Homeworking: Guidance for employers and employees on health and safety. The HSE looks at some of the potential areas for attention, including the use of electrical equipment for work at home, the use of non-domestic materials and substances, and the implications of working with VDUs. It also reminds employers that they have a duty under reporting regulations (RIDDOR 95) to find out about and record certain work-related accidents, injuries and dangerous occurrences, even when they take place in the home.
Nevertheless, the case law is not yet sufficiently developed to make it easy to say how far employers can be held liable for accidents to their employees in the home. After all, health and safety legislation also imposes responsibilities on the employee. Kent County Councils agreement reminds the employee that he or she is expected to co-operate with their line manager in ensuring a safe and healthy working space at home. In practice, employers will want to ensure that their liability insurance policies are broad enough to cover working away from the traditional office place. (As an aside, good employers will also advise employees to check their own household insurance, which can become invalidated if they start teleworking from home).
If it is relatively easy to assess the physical health and safety issues associated with a home workplace, its important for employers not to forget psychological issues, such as stress. The International Labour Organisations recent handbook on best practice in telework draws attention to the risk of workaholism, with teleworkers more likely than office staff to find work demands increasingly seeping through into their home lives. In fact, there can be a general issue in trying to ensure that appropriate boundaries remain between work life and personal life. Alma Erlich and Iain Ellwood, two researchers for the Royal College of Arts Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, have identified four different ways in which home-workers construct, or dont construct, the boundaries between work and personal life. Two models, they suggest, can create significant stress: one they call the overflowing work model, where work demands completely take over an individuals home life; conversely the imploding work model, where home concerns risk swamping out the work, can be equally problematic.
Homeworker isolation should be another concern for employers. The TUC has suggested that teleworkers should have regular meetings with managers and colleagues, and ideally to spend at least a day a week in the office, and this is also the approach adopted at Nationwide. "I wouldnt advocate 100% home-working. We still want our homeworkers to interface physically with the rest of their team. Typically, theyll be homeworking three days out of five and hotdesking the rest," says Pauline Henderson.
Return to my home page