Is the business responsible for worker occupational health and safety during the era of work from home?
Traditionally, organisations have been responsible for worker occupational health and safety (OHS) during office hours, on office premises, but what does this translate to in the era of work from home (WFH)? While lockdowns may have eased and people may have returned to the office, many organisations are adopting hybrid models of working going forward, which means that OHS has to be considered in the realm of WFH.
OHS defines what a workplace is, and it is any place where a person performs work for an employer, so technically, this does include working from home. According to Nicol Myburgh, Head: HCM Business Unit at CRS Technologies, this is an interesting and new area that hasn’t yet been tested in court, but points to potential risk for those organisations that don’t put policies in place.
“Theoretically, employers are responsible for retaining the same OHS requirements for remote employees as those at the office,” he adds. “The question is – how far is this reasonable or practical? Organisations have allowed their employees to take what they need to build their home offices – often letting them take home desks and chairs – to ensure they have decent working conditions. But what happens if they trip down the stairs at home? Is this a company problem?”
Many would say it is not. Just because the employee is working from home doesn’t mean the employer is responsible for their choice of environment. On the other hand, this is a grey area that could become complex for the business if the worst should happen. The same question applies to the Compensation Fund that organisations must take out for their employees. If someone were to fall down the stairs during work hours at home, would the Compensation Fund pay out and can the business submit a workplace incident?
“Technically, this is possible,” says Myburgh. “However, the onus would be on the business to undertake risk assessments at the various homes which is an extensive undertaking, especially for large organisations that have hundreds of employees working in different conditions.”
This situation can be further complicated if an employee contracts COVID-19 while working at home. This could become the employer’s problem. There are support structures in place, but so many of the variables of WFH against the benchmarks of OHS are up for interpretation. From ventilation to stairs to desks and chairs, companies are navigating grey areas across the board.
“There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to defining WFH policies against the tenets of OHS and organisations must be careful that they recognise how OHS takes precedence in many legal proceedings,” concludes Myburgh. “For now, a safe way to navigate this complexity is to assess the risks of an employee working from home and to enforce working from the office if anything could be considered dangerous or liable for prosecution under OHS.”