What WHS risks and liabilities do employers face with working from home?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of members. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Saturday, 15 August, 2020 - 11:15
Industry news
National News

One risk that has been heightened by COVID-19 – that has not received much media attention – is the risk arising from working from home, according to an international law firm.

When an employee works from home, the home becomes a workplace for the purposes of work health and safety matters, said Veronica Siow, a partner in the employment & safety group at Allens.

“The employer can be at risk for any injuries that the employee might suffer from home, both from a WHS and a workers compensation perspective,” said Siow.
“Injuries suffered by an employee while at home can result in liability for the employer.”

Other safety issues that have come into focus with workers working from home during COVID-19 are the risks of domestic violence and mental health issues, she explained. “Organisations need to provide a safe workplace and where domestic violence risks have been identified, organisations need to provide ways for employees to disclose any particular risks, and to mitigate those risks,” said Siow, who explained that it is critical for organisations to assess WHS risks and to plan out how those risks will be mitigated.

“It is more difficult to effect control over employees’ homes, however, providing training on common risks and ergonomics and permitting employees to take equipment home can go a long way to mitigate this risk,” she said.

“For WHS professionals, it is important to learn as much as possible about the risks of COVID-19 and the risks associated with working from home to effectively advocate for safety within their organisations.”

The AIHS recently released a new chapter on “Workers Working from Home” in the OHS Body of Knowledge, which explores the issue of successful management of the health and safety of remote workers.

“Working from home is not a translation of the work from office to home but needs different thinking, support and mindsets from leaders,” said Manager of OHS Body of Knowledge Development Pam Pryor, who co-wrote the chapter in conjunction with David Provan.

“Managing workers working from home is not about compliance, checklists or checking up on workers. Nor is it more Zoom meetings,” she said.

The new chapter features a model for the design of work for workers working from home – the key features of which included:

  • job design that enabled the worker to have “ownership” of the work
  • a work environment that supported trust between the manager and the worker and a sense of belonging by the worker
  • a risk management approach that considers the broad context of the home, community and society.

The change to working from home gives OHS professionals an opportunity to change how they operate and how they are perceived by the organisation, said Pryor.

“We should be working with and mentoring managers and supervisors to help them move from a compliance-through-control approach to a care approach; to understand the work in the home environment and to enable job design that gives the worker ownership,” she said. “Supervisors and managers may also need mentoring in how to create a work environment that supports trust and belonging; in how to have conversations with their workers about how they are going, what their issues are, what we can do to make the work easier, and what resources they need.

“We are not suggesting that these changes are easy for OHS professionals or managers, but an awareness of the need for a change in direction is the first step.

“Those organisations who have been able to make the transition have realised significant benefits.”

For more information see the next issue of OHS Professional magazine, which will include a feature on WHS risks and liabilities for employers in a COVID age, as well as a feature on the new chapter “Workers Working from Home” in the OHS Body of Knowledge. The chapter is freely available online.