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COVID-19 Guidance – health and safety aspects of the new home workplace

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This article was written by Nicholas Beech.

One of the biggest questions many businesses are now facing in the constantly changing COVID-19 environment is how to effectively manage a workforce that's wholly or partly working away from the office?

The challenges facing employers, and employees, are unique and require a global, packaged response to ensure all reasonably practicable steps are taken to maintain a safe and healthy home workplace.  There is no template for this situation, and it calls for creativity, adaption and proactivity.

There are, however, some core planning, physical and psychological aspects to consider in addressing the challenge and to meet occupational safety and health duties .

On the planning front:

  • having a discussion with employees before a work-from-home arrangement starts is important to canvas the set-up process and how the arrangement will operate;
  • a key part of this discussion is to consider whether an employee's home work environment is safe. This may involve a safety assessment of the home work area that covers hazards associated with manual handling, tripping or falling, electrical appliances and the general environment, including noise, security, fire exit access and first aid;
  • it is also important to discuss whether an employee is set up to work effectively and efficiently from home. It may be that an employee does not have all the necessary technological capacity to work remotely. Considering what is needed to expand this capacity may involve consideration of an employee's internet and IT capabilities to facilitate and support the need to shift to digital communication and hardware availability including whether a monitor, keyboard or other devices are needed;
  • once the assessment is complete, it should be agreed with the employee what controls and measures need to be put in place; and
  • the other key aspect of the planning phase is establishing the day-to-day procedure. To provide beneficial structure and safe boundaries around this, it is good to clearly articulate the preferred channels for communication and what kinds of communication are expected and when, any changes to completing work tasks and the importance of turning off from the work role at the end of the day.

Closely connected with this planning aspect is consideration of and communication on some important physical issues like:

  • reminding employees to engage in good ergonomic practices while they are working; and
  • scheduling online break sessions that encourage standing at least once per hour and that involve stretching and changing of posture, and possibly alternative and outdoor activities.

Significant changes in the work environment and colleague interaction, routines and duties may create risks to employees' psychological health.  An employee's new home workplace may be a far more isolated landscape than their usual workplace and may generate unexpected stresses and feelings of loneliness.

An employer's duty of care encompasses ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that employees and other people are not exposed to psychosocial health and safety risks that arise from the workplace.  Adopting the above steps should assist in minimising an employee's exposure to such psychological risks.  It is also important to be conscious of and consider implementing some focused measures such as:

  • identifying potential distractions and discussing strategies to follow to minimise them;
  • encouraging ongoing connection with friends, family, neighbours and others in the community;
  • establishing a one-on-one buddy system; and
  • reminding employees of available assistance programs.
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