By Kate Potts - 30 April
The global health crisis developed so rapidly over the last few months that many employers were unable to give serious thought to their ongoing health and safety obligations. With the compulsory lockdown expected to last many more weeks, it is a good time for employers to take another look at their health and safety obligations.
So, what are employers’ key health and safety obligations?
Employers have a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health and safety of employees, and to provide a safe workplace and safe system of work. Below we take at what this means in practice.
Employers are required to make a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the risks that employees are exposed to while they are at work, and to take measures to reduce those risks. Additionally, the risk assessment should be reviewed where it is no longer valid or there has been a significant change in the matters to which it relates (ding, ding, ding!).
In practice, it is going to be difficult for the majority of employers to carry out individual risk assessments for staff in the current circumstances. Therefore, we suggest that employees are asked to carry out their own risk assessments. To do this they will need to be provided with adequate training and information which we suggest could be provided by written guidance, a group call or by webinar if employers have access to such materials. If you have an occupational health provider, we’d suggest checking in with them as they may have helpful materials or other means of supporting.
Employees should be given a nominated person to contact if they have concerns with their working arrangement. Particular thought should be given to those employees who have a disability, especially around the provision of desk equipment which may be necessary to enable the employ to do their job from home.
Display screen equipment
With many employees working from laptops on kitchen tables or similar makeshift office settings without the usual tech and equipment, it seems inevitable that there will be an increase in the number of employees who will report new or increased back/neck aches or other physical ailments. Therefore, as part of the risk assessment referred to above, employees who use computers or laptops should pay particular attention to their workstation set up. Again, employers should ensure employees have relevant information to enable them to assess and take measures to improve their own workstation. This HSE workstation checklist could be used.
As part of these measures it may be identified that certain equipment (such as a keyboard or monitor) would be useful in reducing the risks of physical injuries. Many employers are encouraging staff to be creative, for example by using cushions to improve their chair and posture or using books to increase monitor height. Our thoughts on providing and paying for office equipment are explored here.
Wellbeing and mental health
An employers’ duty to protect employees’ health includes ‘both physical and mental health. Fear of becoming unwell, feeling isolated, lack of job security or worries about income loss are some of the factors increasing the pressure and stress people are under at the moment. Some steps employers could consider taking to combat mental health issues include the following:
- Ensure staff are aware of any support which is currently available, such as any employee assistance or other schemes in place.
- Ensure that staff take regular rest breaks, perhaps beyond their usual contractual allowance (usually an hour a day for lunch) or minimum break times under the Working Time Regulations (“WTRs”). As a minimum, staff working from home for more than 6 hours a day should have at least 20 minutes break, and they should have at least 11 hours uninterrupted rest per day. The WTRs are complex and depend on the type of work and the age of the workers, so get in touch with your usual GQ|Littler contact if you need more guidance on minimum rest breaks.
- If practical, schedule regular 1-2-1 video check-ins with staff to see how they are doing, including talking to them about establishing routines and rest breaks.
- Encourage teams to get involved with virtual team chats or games to improve morale.
- Promote the use of video for as many work interactions as possible.
For more suggestions and a more detailed look at what employers can do to support employees’ wellbeing and mental health during the health crisis, see our blog post.
If you would like to read more articles on employment law red flags, opportunities and foreseeable issues during Covid-19, click here.