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The Great Return? Part 3

Considerations for returning to the office following the easing of lockdown restrictions

Part 3: Health and Safety Issues


We are continuing with our series of articles which are designed to assist with particular challenges faced by employers in relation to staff returning to work following a period of time on furlough or working from home.

This week we are taking a look at health and safety issues.  From a legal perspective, employers are responsible, as far as reasonably practicable, for the health and safety of all employees, including those working from home.  Consideration should always be given to the type of environment employees are being asked to work in.  As part of this consideration, it is important to carry out a risk assessment to ensure that the work environment is safe.  Where does this leave employers when many staff are currently working from home and may continue to do so on a more permanent basis, including the “hybrid” model?

Legal position

Employers are required to conduct a risk assessment of their employee’s work and workplace, including any working from home.  Under the law, a risk assessment must be “suitable and sufficient”.  If an employer is not able to carry out a full risk assessment, as has been the case due to the pandemic, they should still provide employees with sufficient information on working safely at home (perched on the end of a bed with a laptop for a few hours a day is far from ideal!).  This could include asking employees to carry out a self-assessment of their workspace and equipment. 

If changes are needed to make sure an employee can work at home in a safe and healthy way, employers are responsible for making sure this happens. 

Of course, employees still have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety at work, and should at the very least explain how they are, or otherwise intend, to carry out their duties away from the office.

Working from home

If an employee is working from home, either permanently or temporarily, full-time or part-time, employers should consider the following questions:

  • How will you keep in touch with them?
  • What work activity they will be doing and for how long (including time blocks and rest periods/exercise)?
  • Can their work be done safely in the circumstances with the arrangements envisaged?
  • Do you need to put control measures in place to protect them?

Employers should have clear policies around work equipment and technology, including:

  • how to report any issues and to whom, for example the IT team;
  • rules around data protection and cyber security; and
  • what to do if a work device is lost or stolen.

Support and wellbeing

Whilst working from home has a number of advantages for employees, some can or might come to experience mental health problems, including stress, anxiety and loneliness.  It can be difficult to enforce boundaries between work and home life, which means it is harder to switch off from work and working longer hours.  Working from home may result in lack of support network, which can make people feel isolated from managers and colleagues.

It is worth bearing in mind that not all employees will want to, or even can, work from home, so do consider this generally, as the working arrangements of colleagues may give rise to feelings of resentment in others.

Workstation assessments at home

For people working from home on a long-term basis, a home workstation assessment should be undertaken.  This helps to control risks associated with using display screen equipment in particular. 

There are various ways to reduce the risks from display screen work:

  • using rest breaks or changes in activity to break up long spells of display screen work;
  • regularly changing position to avoid awkward posture;
  • getting up and moving frequently and doing stretching exercises;
  • blinking to avoid eye fatigue; and
  • in fact, taking a walk outside to allow the eyes to adjust to the horizon, for example, is also useful.

Employers should have regular discussions with employees to assess whether additional steps are necessary, in particular where they report:

  • aches, pains or discomfort;
  • adverse effects of working in isolation, on remote IT systems;
  • working longer hours without adequate rest breaks.

Practical tips

  • Communication is vital.  Employers and employees should communicate when issues arise and work together to find suitable solutions.
  • There are greater risks for lone workers who have no direct supervision or anyone to help them if things go wrong.  Make sure you keep in direct touch with these workers regularly to ensure they are healthy and safe.
  • Put procedures in place so that you can recognise signs of stress as soon as possible.
  • Have an emergency point of contact and communicate this with employees who are working from home, so that they know where to turn for help.
  • Make sure that employees have access to the right equipment and technology to work from home effectively, including keyboards, mouse, laptops.  For larger items (for example ergonomic chairs, height-adjustable desks) see if there can be other ways of creating a comfortable working environment.
  • Agree with each employee what is necessary for the job, for example a reliable and secure internet connection, and agree who will provide/cover the cost of equipment and repairs.
  • Consider engaging an external occupational health expert to carry out remote inspections and discussions with employees, which can be a first alert of physical problems developing and so can be managed early.

Returning to the office

Employees who are returning to the office following a period of time on furlough leave or working from home may have concerns about whether the workplace is Covid secure.  In relation to this, employers should:

  • conduct a risk assessment;
  • ensure that social distance can be maintained (this may involve moving work stations/desks, or perhaps even taking some out altogether etc.);
  • providing appropriate PPE;
  • giving instructions on the proper use of PPE;
  • providing appropriate hygiene facilities; and
  • ensuring that the workplace is cleaned and disinfected regularly.

With people still being asked by the Government to work from home wherever practicable, there is an additional burden of health and safety requirements on employers.  Not only is it necessary to take measures to minimise the risk of the incidence and spread of coronavirus on your premises, but there is also a need to support staff working from home and ensure a safe environment.  With many people discovering the benefits of home-working, this practice may well be here to stay.…perhaps to become the new norm.

If you have questions about the information in this article or would like to discuss an employment law related matter please contact Richard Port at or call Boardside on 0330 0949338