What do employers need to do to ensure that employees are free to work in a more fluid way, while still meeting their wellbeing obligations? Dave Usher offers useful advice.
10 September 2015 | By Dave Usher
Workplace regulations covering employee wellbeing are necessary, and it is right that employers should ensure the health and wellbeing of those they employ.
But changing working practices are adding complications to what was previously a relatively straightforward regime.
Increasingly, the modern workplace bears little relationship to what it was even a decade ago. Wi-Fi networking and mobile devices have ushered in an era of fluid office space and remote working. On top of this, the growing prevalence of BYOD sees people using their own laptops, tablets and smartphones.
This means there is now an element of the unknown to contend with. How exactly do you apply the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 to a device you don't, as an employer, own? And when your employees work from home, or on the move, how can you control or influence things like their posture?
As the Health & Safety Executive recognises, "unsuitable seating can cause people to adopt awkward postures which can lead to discomfort, back pain and upper limb disorders. This may prove costly to employers in the form of staff absences, potential civil claims and lost production". So how can you be sure that you are satisfying your legal obligations in this new flexible world, and what can you do to encourage employees who work remotely to act in their own, and the company's, best interests?
Since 30 June 2014, all employees who have worked for their employer continuously for 26 weeks have had the right to ask their employer if they can work flexibly. Meanwhile, research has shown that the 'bring your own device' phenomenon can boost employee happiness and productivity, so it makes sense to embrace it.
While there is a clear discrepancy with regard to the employer's legal obligations, best practice and the reality of the modern working environment, there are strategies that employers can adopt to address health, safety and wellbeing. Developing a corporate culture of awareness and education can be crucial in helping remote workers to take care of themselves.
1. Duty of care
As an employer, you have a duty of care for all employees whether they are in the office or not. This represents the biggest unrecognised cultural shift in the modern workplace, and too many employers fail to understand that their responsibility travels with their employees. Make sure this is understood across the organisation - by both management and staff - to encourage shared responsibility.
2. Remote environment
It is easy to control the office environment, but you cannot control the remote working environment, so staff should be educated about issues such as the importance of posture, in the same way you would educate them in how to lift a box correctly as part of your health and safety training. For example, staff should be made aware that the type of chair used has an important effect on posture at the desk. A chair with armrests will keep the body straight and relieve the spine of some of the weight. Staff should be shown how to adjust the seat height so that their thighs are almost horizontal with their feet flat on the floor, with the angle of the backrest adjusted so that their torso is vertical.
3. RSI prevention
Repetitive strain injury can arise from over-use of the computer mouse or laptop trackpad. It is a real and serious condition of the wrist, which makes keyboard work painful. Women are more likely to suffer from it than men. Special computer mice and external laptop keyboards are available to reduce twisting of the wrist and it is worth investing in these for staff.
4. Screen use
The Display Screen Regulations are increasingly out of step with remote working BYOD culture, having been originally developed for office-provided equipment and environments. Until legislation is updated, the best approach is one of training staff in correct use and developing a risk assessment regime based on the likely use and behaviour of people according to their responsibilities and roles.
5. Assess risks
Risk assessments should check that the proposed work arrangements are suitable and include issues such as lighting, space, desk, chair and computer. Employees working remotely should understand that access could be required at the home to conduct an initial health and safety assessment and initial setup of the home working environment. Responsibilities include rectifying problems in the remote environment highlighted by the risk assessment, and adequate maintenance of their own equipment.
Don't let network security be your only concern regarding employee-owned devices. Ensure employees understand their responsibilities if they are introducing their own devices and working from home.
Dave Usher is managing director of InterAction ergonomics consultancy