According to the TUC, in 2014 the number of people who reported that they usually work from home reached four million for the first time – an increase of 62,000 over the course of 2013 to 2014. In this special report, we look at what employers need to do in order to ensure the health and safety of their employees working at home.
The phrase working from or at home actually covers a wide range of jobs. According to research conducted by the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), they fall into four broad categories, all of them creating their own health and safety risks:
- Textiles and sewing. The main hazards associated with these activities are dust, fibres and chemically treated fabrics which can cause respiratory and skin irritation, needle injuries, vibration syndromes, noise-induced hearing loss, and poor seating and lighting leading to muscular strain, eye strain, and headaches.
- Packing/assembly work/finishing. Because of the sheer breadth of activities that this sector can include, a range of hazards and health problems are involved. It is generally repetitive work, which can involve heavy lifting, dust and working with glues and paints (eg. packing cards, trimming and assembling rubber and plastics, wire bending). Typical injuries and health problems include upper limb pain (especially in the hands and fingers), muscular strain, eye strain, respiratory and skin irritation, headaches, and nausea caused by the vapours emanating from some products and processes.
- Electrical and electronics. A notable hazard is that posed by the use of rosin solder flux, a known cause of occupational asthma. The repetitiveness and close inspection required can also lead to muscular and eye strain.
- Business services/computer work. Given the right technology, this type of work can be done virtually anywhere and can include telemarketing and sales through to journalism to graphic design. The main health risks are muscular strain, eye strain and headaches due to incorrect workstation set-up.
Note: Anyone working alone from home, especially if they do not come into contact with their colleagues back at base on a regular basis, is at a risk of experiencing social isolation which can lead to stress and depression. (See our guide to work related stress for more details)
Employers’ rights and responsibilities
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to protect the health, safety and welfare of homeworkers who are employees and they should carry out a risk assessment of their work activities and take appropriate measures to reduce any associated risks.
Much of the work carried out at home will be ‘low safety risk’ office-type work. Of the work equipment used at home, employers are only responsible for the equipment supplied by themselves. There are no regulations which state that ergonomic chairs and workstations be provided but it is common for companies to supply computers, allowing staff access to the intranet and the ability to call for technical help.
Those employees undertaking activities such as working with adhesives or soldering, should be supplied with personal protective equipment in good condition, should the risk assessment show that it is needed. It should not be forgotten that many workers who are based at home but travel to meetings, such as sales reps and business consultants, will probably spend a great deal of their time driving. This may be in fleet cars (in which case the company vehicle policy should ensure that maintenance is up-to-date and that the driver is regularly asked to show his licence) but many will be driving their own cars for which they reclaim mileage.
In the latter case, the employee is responsible for vehicle upkeep but it would be best practice for employers to check driving licences on a regular basis to see if there are any penalty points. If there are, a driving revision course may be required.
In both cases, employers should point out the necessity for good driving posture in order to avoid musculoskeletal disorders and they must be told not to drive while using a mobile phone or if they are overly tired.
Employers are not required to visit their employees who work at home to carry out a risk assessment (and, indeed, many workers would feel quite uncomfortable to find the boss on the doorstep) – though some would argue that it’s impossible to carry out a workstation risk assessment, say, without seeing the chair, the desk and the space available or to assess the risk of fumes and vapours without looking at ventilation systems.
It is, therefore, important that good safety induction and job-related training is given, especially since there is not going to be supervision on a daily basis. Some companies make health and safety training available on their intranets to home-based employees. The quality of such screen-based training is, to say the least, variable.
Finally, it’s worth noting that many of the homeworking jobs listed in this article could be carried out by the self-employed and they have duties specifically under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure they have assessed the risks to their own health and safety and that of other people with whom they come into contact.
This article is an abridged version of a story which originally appeared in RoSPA’s Occupational Safety & Health Journal.