Many businesses were forced to quickly implement working from home arrangements in early 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This accelerated an existing trend in many Australian workplaces towards hybrid and fully remote working. With this trend here to stay, and with many cities around Australia going in and out of lockdowns, employers need to be more sophisticated in how they manage employees working remotely.
When making work from home arrangements, employers need to consider both the logistics and ability of employees to work from home but also their workplace health and safety obligations to employees. An employer’s primary duty of care to all employees, including those working away from the office, under section 19(3) of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) includes providing and maintaining a work environment free from risks to an employee’s health and safety. Employers therefore need to identify and manage both the physical and psychological health and safety risks related to working from home. This may include checking if the employee has a physically safe space from which to work, the necessary equipment to do their job, and being cognisant of the mental health strain that working from home can have on some employees.
SafeWork Australia says that the most significant factor impacting work health and safety when working from home is prolonged sitting, with musculoskeletal injuries being one of the most common workers’ compensation claims made by employees. Ergonomic hazards may be contributing to musculoskeletal injuries with workstations incorrectly set up creating poor postures. As such, it may be timely to review each employee’s set up in the home environment.
Traditionally, the way an employer would evaluate an employee’s computer set up at home has been by way of self-assessment, asking employees to review their work surface, chair, monitor height, lighting and so on. Requiring an employee to complete their own assessment of the risks and hazards in their home environment has the benefit of empowering employees to take responsibility for their own health and safety at home and to identify any concerns. Self-assessments were also appropriate when employees were first directed en masse to work from home in March 2020, when there was little time or opportunity for employers to perform more rigorous assessment of the home work environment.
However, these self-assessments can often be a “tick and flick exercise”, with little engagement from the employee and no review or follow up from employers. As such, they may not always be an adequate measure to demonstrate that the employer has engaged in adequate consultation, discussions and supervision to ensure reasonably practicable steps are in place to manage the worker’s health and safety whilst at home.
Where it appears likely that an employee is going to be working from home for prolonged period in response to COVID-19 induced lockdowns, or simply on an ongoing hybrid model going forward, it may be timely to conduct a formal assessment of an employee’s home set up. In addition to a self-assessment, employers might consider assessing the workspace via video call or photos. Or employers might consider performing some level of spot auditing and follow up to ensure a proper assessment has been conducted, and to identify any deficiencies.
Employers also need to take steps to understand what work is being done and when to ensure compliance with time keeping obligations, any modern award restrictions on span of hours, and to identify if any employees are working excessive hours. Whilst the more introverted employees may relish the opportunity to be working from home during lockdowns, others miss the social and collaborative contact with colleagues and experience feelings of disconnection, loneliness and anxiety. For some employees, there can be the difficulty of separating “work” from “home” which leads to excessive work hours, little rest time, and the inability to switch off, leading to poor mental health, fatigue, and sometimes poor physical health.
There are ways that businesses can help mitigate these risks. For example, frequent communication, encouraging employees to take regular breaks, making clear the employer’s expectations of employees in terms of working hours, and providing resources that support the mental health and wellbeing of employees.
If you require assistance in meeting your obligations with respect to employee health and safety, including the development of working from home policies, please get in touch with McCabe Curwood’s Employment Group.