Staying Safe at the Home Office
In one form or another, hybrid work arrangements are most likely here to stay and employers need to consider how this might change their Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) obligations. Is it time to assess your OHS policies when it comes to employees' home offices and habits?
Given the different dynamics and responsibilities to office-based work, home offices should be considered in policy statements and, clearly defined boundaries, can save confusion further down the line. A common example is for a policy outlining how the employer and employee have a shared responsibility to ensure that the home-based workspace is safe, but that the employer's responsibility does not extend beyond the home workspace area. For example, whilst faulty wiring is a health and safety issue, it is not necessarily the employer's responsibility to remediate. Similarly, it is reasonable for a policy to define the areas considered primarily the employee's responsibility - particularly where these are traditionally the employer's domain in an office environment. This could mean the employee ensures their workspace is adequately lit, is well ventilated and free of trip hazards.
Choosing to conduct a physical inspection is down to the individual company policy. An inspection is the ideal, but smaller organisations may not have dedicated workplace health & safety (WHS) resources and employing a consultant to do the inspection can be expensive. Another consideration is that while employees have a right to a safe work environment, they also have a right to privacy and to protect their family. To this end, organisations should consider talking through the subject with individual employees. This should be backed with a clear and documented understanding that the organisation will not be liable for any safety outcome that could reasonably have been avoided if an inspection had been conducted.
Using photographs can be a more acceptable alternative to an inspection. Also, if you decide against an inspection consider the use of a safety checklist covering elements such as lighting and cables, which may not be clear from a photograph.
The importance of well-being in the workplace is the same for office and home based workers; for example, encouraging physical activity. When it comes to mandating time away from the desk, any office policies should also apply to the home based worker. That said, the home office sometimes doubles as a family study, music room etc. There is always the possibility that an employee can work a full day at their desk then check social media there in the evening. Given that an employer cannot usually control activity outside work hours, it is reasonable to try and mitigate the situation through the implementation of “away-from-desk-time" during work hours.
Once policies and checks are in place, another step is to ensure an easy way for the employee to capture risks, hazards and report incidents. In the absence of a purpose-built solution, employees should be given clear instructions on who to contact about a hazard or accident, including email and phone numbers.
Safety should be proactive as well as reactive, and the dynamics of the home office can unfortunately lead to increased risks that may not show up in an inspection, isolation issues for example. Organisations should consider a regular ‘touch base’ - maybe in the form of a quick survey - that aims to determine whether employees feel safe and well supported at home. Attention should be paid on an individual basis to those employee responses that may indicate an underlying problem.
To support organisations with managing safety in the workplace, Human Capital Management software provider, Frontier Software, has developed an app specifically for reporting hazards and safety incidents. All users of their Workplace Health & Safety software can install the app and lodge real-time safety reports with their manager or WHS Department. Safety reports can also include a photo of the problem. One Frontier client found that their hazard resolution rates were improved by some 80% when the report included photographs.