We are undoubtedly in the midst of a COVID-induced work-from-home (WFH) revolution. As workplaces have been replaced by homes, and office desks replaced with kitchen tables, we have also seen swift and dramatic changes to the way employers are required to fulfil their duty of care to employees.
Identifying and managing potential risks and hazards in the workplace is a long-standing, undisputed obligation of businesses under Work Health and Safety (WHS) and Workers Compensation legislation. However, it is an obligation that has been significantly impacted by the ‘new normal’ forced upon us by COVID-19.
When COVID-19 first appeared – bringing with it the prospect of workplaces transitioning to WFH arrangements for an undefined period – it would have been easy for employers to focus solely on the pressing issue of the logistics required to set their workforce up to work from home quickly, and with minimal disruptions to business operations. As an employer in this ‘new normal’, it is also vitally important to understand what you should be doing to ensure you are fulfilling your WHS obligations.
Safe Work Australia defines a workplace as “any place where work is carried out for a business or undertaking and includes any place where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work”. Therefore, whether your employees are working from a home office, the kitchen table or a laptop in the living room, the employee’s home is considered a workplace during WFH arrangements. This means even under WFH arrangements, businesses must ensure the health and safety of workers and provide a work environment without risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practical.
This poses issues for employers on several different fronts. Firstly, under WFH arrangements, a business’ level of influence and control over their employees’ work environment has most likely changed. For example, where it might have been practical for an employer to check for hazards regularly in the usual work premise, this may no longer be possible under WFH arrangements.
Secondly, WFH arrangements can see employers facing new or different workplace risks that arise due to each individual employees’ personal circumstances.
In addition, employers must also be aware that existing WHS risks may manifest in different ways under the new WFH arrangements.
Examples of changes in WHS risks under WFH arrangements
- An employer may not be able to easily check for slip and trip risks and the electrical safety of equipment
- In cases of harassment or bullying claims, an employer could find themselves more reliant on self-reporting in lieu of the usual ability to supervise their employees in the workplace
- Managing good ergonomic practices is made more difficult under WFH arrangements
- Additional stressors on employee mental health may be present as individuals deal with major adjustments to their work routine.
As an employer, what can you do to manage WFH risks?
In WFH arrangements it is important to provide guidance to employees and establish an appropriate level of supervision. Some strategies could include:
- Providing clear clarification to your employees to define set working hours while working from home
- Updating any existing policies such as incident reporting, harassment, and bullying policies, so they are applicable to WFH arrangements then reinforcing them with your employees
- Maintaining regular communication with employees to monitor any WFH concerns
- Conduct training with relevant managers or supervisors so they are aware of WHS risks and updated policies under WFH arrangements
- Provide training and guidance to your employees on creating a safe work environment in their homes
It has now been almost six months since measures were first introduced to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Even as case numbers begin to drop and restrictions begin to ease, it’s reasonable to expect flexible working arrangements could remain in place indefinitely for many businesses. In this new normal it is important employers remain vigilant in assessing and reviewing WFH risks regularly.