Do Existing Health and Safety Regulations Support Changing Work Practices?

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

woman working from home

Businesses in most industries have dramatically transformed their operations over the past 12 months to adapt to the realities of Covid-19 and the restrictions that have been introduced to help deal with the pandemic. Many of these transformations have had significant health and safety implications.

As the progress of the vaccination programme continues at pace, many of us are now looking at the post-pandemic landscape. After all, we are unlikely to go back to exactly the same as before.

Changing Employer and Worker Attitudes

One example of the changes that have taken place as businesses adapt to the pandemic is home working. Many businesses and workers now have much more experience of flexible working arrangements, including working from home. While it is not right for all workers, many would welcome the continuation of some form of home working.

In addition, businesses that may have in the past been reluctant to allow too much flexible working are now more relaxed about the prospect, not least because many senior executives and business owners will now have direct experience of home working for the first time themselves.

As a result, experts who assess workplace trends believe that while there will be a return to the office and other workplaces once restrictions are lifted and guidance is relaxed, there will be a much higher rate of home working than there was pre-pandemic.

Are existing regulations sufficient for ensuring workplace safety when there is a higher rate of home working?

Infection Control

Infection control is another interesting topic. It has always been important for businesses in specific industries, including those dealing with food and companies that operate in the life sciences sector. However, in many other businesses, infection control is of minimal importance except for ensuring there is soap in bathrooms and regular cleaning.

Will that attitude change in the future following this period where there has been so much focus on the individual’s responsibility for protecting others from being infected? In the post-pandemic workplace, what will happen when an employee with a cold wants to soldier-on rather than taking time off? That was acceptable before. In some situations, it was even expected. Will that be the case in the future? What will other employees think? Is there enough clarity in the legislation and guidance for employers to develop a robust policy?

We have already had a bit of a taster of this dilemma as employers discuss (and try to figure out) how they will deal with situations where some employees might refuse to take the Covid-19 vaccine? Where does the balance between individual rights and workplace risks lie in situations like these?

What about RIDDOR? It says you only need to make a report in certain specific circumstances in relation to Covid-19 infection, with the focus being on attributable “occupational exposure” to the virus. Does that apply in the vaccine situation described above? Aside from RIDDOR requirements, what will employees think – employees who are scared about potential exposure to the virus?

If you’re not fully up to date on RIDDOR, you can download an excellent new guide from Alcumus here.

Air filtration is also a potential issue, i.e., whether the rules on airflow in the workplace are up to standard. Many health and disease control experts say air filtration is crucial to keeping people safe from airborne viruses when inside. Without new guidance or regulations, what should employers do, particularly as we all now know so much more about these types of diseases?

Working from Home

To explore these issues further, let’s look in more detail at one topic that many will be familiar with and that has already been mentioned – working from home. What are the current regulations, and are they suitable in a situation when a large proportion of a company’s workforce might, in the future, be working from home for significant periods of time during the week?

The Health and Safety Executive has published guidance for employers on home working.

In summary, the guidance says employers must regularly keep in touch with lone workers to check they are safe and healthy, including employees working from home. There is no requirement for conducting a display screen equipment (DSE) risk assessment unless the working from home arrangement becomes long-term.

However, even if an employee is working from home on a short-term or temporary basis, their employer still needs to provide advice on screen use and their workstation.

The HSE also says employers should meet specific workstation health and safety requirements where possible, including allowing employees to take equipment home from the workplace and giving advice on the use of supporting cushions to make workstations more comfortable. Employers must also keep DSE arrangements under review.

Home Working Questions and Practical Issues Remain

The above guidance leaves a lot of questions. For example, what happens if an employee goes to their kitchen to get a cup of tea during the working day and trips on the power cable plugged into their laptop, injuring themselves? In an office or similar workplace setting, this would be a workplace injury. What about when the employee is working from home, and the trip occurs in their own kitchen?

Some employers might decide the accident is work-related because the laptop being used for work was directly involved in the accident. What if an employee slips on a spill in the same circumstances? Is that work-related?

Workstations are another practical issue for employers. In an office environment, the employer can assess the needs of similar workers and purchase the same desks and chairs for most of their employees, taking into account specific needs as required. In home working situations, risk assessments will have to be completed on a wide range of furniture, from home office furniture to normal household furniture like dining room tables and chairs.

One of the recommendations from the HSE is to let employees take desks and chairs home with them. That might have been useful during the temporary home working arrangements brought about by the lockdown. It is much less practical under normal working conditions where, for example, an employee might spend two days in the office and three days at home.

There is a range of other practical issues that employers have to deal with when they have employees working from home in greater numbers on a longer-term basis. Those issues include:

  • Requiring employees to do a risk assessment on the desk and chair they have set up for home working, but that employee then spending most of the working day on their sofa with a laptop on their knee.
  • Rules regarding maximum working hours per week for employees who haven’t opted out, particularly when so many people work longer hours when working from home.
  • Ensuring that employees take sufficient breaks throughout the day. This is another example where employees report different behaviour when working at home compared to working in the office, i.e., they take fewer breaks when working from home, particularly breaks away from their screens.
  • Mental wellbeing issues, including the fact that employees can find it hard to switch off when there is minimal physical separation between work and home. Some also find it harder to sleep, and they can feel overworked and anxious. In a post-Covid-19 situation where employees who don’t like working from home can go back to the office, this issue won’t be as widespread as it was during the lockdowns. It is still something employers will have to be aware of, though.
  • Situations where managers are working from home while the workers that report to them are on-site. Will there be too much of a disconnect between what the workers are doing and the manager’s oversight? How can companies ensure health and safety procedures and rules continue to be followed?
  • Creating a working from home health and safety policy as many employers don’t currently have one.
  • As mentioned above, the responsibilities on employers increase when working from home becomes a long-term arrangement rather than a temporary one. At what point does this happen, though?

PPE Legislation

The legislation governing PPE is one of the clearest indicators that current health and safety rules and regulations have some catching up to do in a post-pandemic world. Under current UK laws, employers are only responsible for supplying PPE to their employees. However, a recent court decision said this was wrong, as employers must provide PPE to all workers, not just employees. This would cover independent contractors and others not directly employed. The Government is now changing the legislation.

Conclusion

Existing health and safety rules and regulations leave many areas of uncertainty for both employees and employers in the post-pandemic workplace. In some respects, this is not surprising as the rate of change over the past 12 months has been exceptional.

That said, it is important that health and safety regulations catch up quickly to keep employees – and other workers – safe both when working from home and in more traditional workplace environments.

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