Employers exposed to homeworking risks

Stephanie Byrne-Roche

June 16 2020

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Lockdown turned many Irish businesses into remote working operations almost overnight. With little time to prepare for this mass migration to working from home, many employers focused on ensuring that their IT systems had the capacity to facilitate remote work.

As we now approach Phase 3 of the Government’s Roadmap to Reopening, you need to consider the longer-term impact of maintaining remote work arrangements and formalising the position to guard against the risks that come with a remote workforce. Though not an exhaustive list, this article proposes focusing on three key risks under the headings of health & safety, data protection, and working time.

Health & safety risks

Ireland’s health & safety legislation requires employers to ensure the safety of employees as far as is reasonably practicable while they’re at work. As such, if staff are working from home, the home effectively becomes a workplace. Employers are therefore obliged to take action to prevent any injuries or ill-health that might reasonably arise while working from home.  

If you haven’t already done so, you should assess the safety of the workstations that employees are using in their homes. This will ensure that the risk of injury is minimised and that you comply with your obligations under the health & safety legislation.

Health & safety laws require you to carry out a risk assessment to identify workplace risks and hazards and to put steps in place to minimise such risks. This process should include feedback from the employee about their home workstation.

Some questions to consider as part of this process include:

  • Are there particular hazards in the home?
  • Does the workstation have a suitable desk, chair, and screen?
  • Is the room adequately ventilated and bright enough to complete the type of work being carried out?
  • Have cables or other trip hazards been identified?

The risk assessment also needs to consider any particular needs vulnerable staff may have. Older workers, pregnant workers, and workers with underlying medical conditions must be carefully considered. Employees who live alone may need help with minimising lone worker risks.

Issuing or reissuing a health & safety policy to your staff is also recommended as a means of reminding them of their duty to protect their own safety while at work. The legislation requires employees to take reasonable care to protect their own health and safety and not to engage in behaviour that will endanger themselves or others.

Claims based on health & safety breaches are often accompanied by personal injury actions and represent a significant financial and reputational risk for employers. To defend such claims, you must be able to show that you’ve taken reasonable steps and consulted with employees on appropriate ways to mitigate workplace risks.

Data protection

While arranging IT systems to facilitate remote work was the early pandemic priority, now is the time to close off any remaining IT risks. You should remind employees of their obligations under confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts. The risk of disclosing confidential information is particularly high while employees are working from home.

In fact, many organisations have deemed it necessary to advise staff to switch off Alexa. Furthermore, mobile devices provided to staff should have secure encryption and authentication procedures built-in. Data protection rules apply equally whether the data processing takes place on-site or on an employee’s mobile device.

Remote staff who process data may need to be reminded of their obligations under the GDPR principles and any measures they need to adopt to ensure that data is stored securely.

Working time

Recent surveys suggest a significant number of homeworkers need support with separating their home and work lives. Working from home introduces stresses associated with social isolation and setting boundaries between work life and personal life. To reduce this risk of social isolation, encourage regular contact and interaction between colleagues. If possible, training for managers on how to identify and handle the signs of staff anxiety caused by isolation is also recommended. 

Many employees have reported working longer hours since their move home. Under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, employers must not permit employees to work over and above the daily and weekly hours of work set down in the legislation. Arguably, the legislation is no longer fit for purpose given that a lot of modern work is carried out in a flexible manner. However, as the law stands, it’s your duty to ensure staff takes their statutory breaks and rest periods.

A recent EU decision also confirmed that employers must have an appropriate recording system in place documenting employee hours. Given that the WRC receives more complaints under working time laws than under any other employment legislation, you should ensure that this particular risk is addressed as a priority.  

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