The rush for people to be equipped to work from home has largely been focussed on ensuring everyone has enough bandwidth and tech to continue operating as normally as possible. Companies have also been pushed to improve online access to applications or move to cloud services as well as improving their cybersecurity. But what about occupational health and safety? What obligations are employers and employees meant to maintain? Are they different when staff work from home?
The short answer is that if you have staff working from home then you have the same obligations to ensure they have a safe workplace. That means ensuring office areas are properly set up with desks and chairs that are ergonomically safe. Screens, keyboards and mouses and trackpads need to positioned correctly to ensure workers don't develop problems like sore shoulders, wrists or backs.
Should you audit home offices?
SafeWork, the New South Wales workplace health and safety regulator, makes some suggestions for things people need to consider when it comes to working from home. Its list of items to consider is a good place to start.
- risks associated with slips, trips and falls
- workstation ergonomics and designating a specific work area, moving furniture to allow comfortable access, providing adequate lighting
- manual tasks
- electrical safety such as maintaining electrical equipment, and installing and maintaining smoke alarms
- psychosocial risks such as personal security and isolation
- environmental hazards such as noise
- reporting changes that may affect their health and safety when working from home
They also offer a work from home checklist [Word doc] to help.
It's also worth noting that if you're looking for information from your state safety authority they may refer to telecommuting rather than work from home - such as WorkSafe Queensland.
Emma Crouch from Shine Lawyers said completing a workplace safety checklist and taking a photo so there's a record is a good place to start.
And it may be practical to ship employees chairs and desks to their homes if there's a space rather than expecting people to purchase new equipment.
What if some gets hurt at home in work hours?
The advice from all the relevant workplace safety authorities is that workers need to have a safe workplace and that they follow workplace procedures. But we also know there's some interesting grey area in that. For example, there's the case of a worker who was injured while having sex in a hotel room on a work trip a few years ago and won a compensation claim. Although the person's compensation win was overturned, it highlights how precarious the line between work and personal time can be is some situations.
"Our homes have become our workplaces," Crouch said.
If you take a short break in the office for a cup of coffee and are injured, then you are covered by various workplace safety authorities. But if you go out for lunch and are injured at the mall, outside the office, then you're probably not covered.
But Crouch said the lines are very blurry.
For example, if you need to take regular breaks for household chores or to work with kids who are being homeschooled, then those could be deemed non-work times if that's what you've agreed with your boss. Being injured while grabbing a cuppa could be considered differently to unloading the dishwasher for example.
"It's important for employers and employees to be really clear," she said. "That's important as there are unlikely to be any witnesses if there's an injury at home".
The bottom line
With working from home becoming the new normal, employers and employees both have obligations to ensure the workplace is safe.
- Completing a workplace safety checklist, complete with photos or video is a good place to start.
- If an employee needs new equipment to make their home workspace safe, can it be shipped from the office to the employee's home or can they be compensated for any purchases they need to make?
- Be clear about work hours. If you need regular breaks for household chores or to look after kids, let your manager know.