2020 has certainly been a year to remember. ‘The year of the pandemic’ is likely to be its epitaph. Equally, its’ epithet, could be ‘The year of homeworking.’
Late March 2020 heralded a new dawn in the way that millions of people around the country were destined to work for the rest of the year and possibly for the foreseeable future. In April 2020, 46.6% of people who were in employment, did at least some of their work from home. Of those who did work at home, 86% did so because coronavirus had caused their places of work to close their doors.
Whilst some people have since drifted back into their offices and other places of work, it remains the case that home is now the new workplace for many millions of people.
As a niche firm of personal injury solicitors, Mooneerams are used to making claims on behalf of clients who have been injured in accidents at work.
In all the cases that we have historically dealt with, ‘accidents at work’ has referred to accidents that have taken place in commonly recognised places of work such as offices, factories, shops and constructions sites. Accidents at work that involve an accident at an employee’s home, haven’t figured in any that we can recall.
However, with huge numbers of employees now working from home, what would be the situation if they were to have an accident whilst working from home? Could the employee make a personal injury claim against their employer?
Before we can answer that question directly, we need to look at the legal principle known as ‘an employer’s duty of care.’
Does an employer owe a duty of care to an employee whilst they work from home?
Employers owe a duty of care to the people that work for them. The duty can be best described as a requirement to look after the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. It entails protecting their workers from coming to any harm and making sure that they are not exposed to any unnecessary risks, whilst they carry out their work duties.
The duty of care extends to employees working from home.
What types of accidents are most likely to happen when working from home?
The most common types of accident that are likely to happen when working from home are:
- Slips, trips and falls:- cables, carpet edges, children’s toys, boxes and paperwork – all these and more present potential trip and fall hazards.
- Falling objects:- Heavy items toppling from cupboards or shelves
- Manual lifting of heavy items:- back injuries are a major source of absenteeism from work. they are frequently caused by workers attempting to lift items that are too heavy for them or as a result of adopting a poor method of lifting
- Poor workstation ergonomics:- it’s all too easy to pay scant attention to the risks that a poorly set up workspace can pose for an employee who is likely to spend the majority of their working day sittingin front a PC screen or a laptop.
There are also numerous risks to a person’s health associated with sitting on a chair that is not fit for purpose. A screen that is set at an inappropriate level or that is without a protective screen, can be the source of eye-related injury. Desks that are too low, or too high, to type on can cause or contribute to repetitive strain injuries.
How can employers best ensure that they do not breach their duty of care to employees who work from home?
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 make it a requirement that employers carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the health and safety risks to which their employees are exposed, whilst they are at work.
Most of the people who have swelled the numbers of those working from home, due to the coronavirus pandemic, are likely to be employed in desk-based, office type occupations. For some, this will entail working out of a room that is a dedicated workspace. Others will be ‘making do’ in an area of the kitchen, dining room or bedroom.
Any risk assessments carried out will need to be alive to the differing qualities of employees’ home working conditions. It is likely that most employers will help their employees to carry out their own risk assessments.
If despite carrying out a risk assessment, an employee suffers an accident whilst working from home, and they make a claim, will it succeed?
Here’s our view:
- An employer’s duty of care is limited to being responsible for those things that they can control. The law would consider that they have a stringent duty to prevent accidents from happening in premises that they control i.e., their own work premises.
- If an employee works from home, it is they, not the employer who holds the greater degree of control over their work environment.
- As long as the employer has carried out, or has assisted the employee in carrying out, a suitable risk assessment then it’s probable that a court would say that the employer has fulfilled their duty of care to their employee, in the event of a work accident claim being made.
- When the pandemic first struck, many employers arranged for their workforce to continue working, albeit from home. This reorganisation of their workforces had to be carried out without warning and at no little cost to employers. Any court that was presented with an accident at work claim to adjudicate on, that involved someone who was injured whilst working at home, would have a large degree of sympathy with an employer who had done all that could be expected of them, in such difficult circumstances.
Some final words of caution
- Employers who initially arranged for their employees to carry out their own risk assessments of their working arrangements would now be strongly advised to consider arranging for a more robust assessment to be carried out by an expert.
It’s highly likely that many people are working from home with substandard work equipment, hastily thrown together in the early days of the pandemic.
However, as time has moved on, working from home is becoming if not a permanent, then at least a large part of peoples working lives. If an accident were now to happen, or an illness develops, as a result of an employee not having satisfactory equipment – chair, desk, protective PC screens, armrests, wrist supports, laptop rest etc, then in the event of a claim being made, the employer might not find that the courts would be as sympathetic to their plight as they would have been 9 months ago.
Ensuring that employees have equipment that is fit for purpose may prevent illness or injury. It may also prevent a work accident and any subsequent claim from succeeding.
- Lockdown has resulted in a marked rise in the levels of mental health-related illnesses amongst workers during the lockdown, according to an analysis of official data.
Vicki Chauhan of NTT Data UK is quoted as saying: “Research showed it was more important than ever to support workers health as lockdown and remote working continued to impact society.”
It is our view that we may soon see a significant rise in the numbers of mental health illness claims being made by home based workers, with work related issues and a lack of employer support during lockdown, being cited as the causes.
Employers are reminded of their duty of care to their employees. More than ever, this duty extends to taking steps to ensure that they do everything within their power to check in regularly and meaningfully with remote working employees. Having awareness of mental health issues is one thing. Taking positive action to help employees who are showing signs of a mental illness, is another.