WFH safety risks employers should look out for

'There's an enormous amount of matters or claims or injuries that are focused on psychological issues,' says lawyer

WFH safety risks employers should look out for

SafeWork Australia recently released resources on ways to manage work, health and safety (WHS) risks while working from home.

The resources include a working from home checklist, information on WHS duties as a worker, as well as details on managing risks while at home.

“Safety obligations sit with persons conducting businesses or undertakings, so essentially a range of employers and businesses that do things,” Dr Laura Sowden, partner at Mills Oakley told HRD Australia.

“It also sits with individual workers within workplaces. They all have their own work, health and safety obligations to themselves and to others.

“So…it's very important that individuals are quite aware of their own safety at work so that they can firstly discharge their own obligations to themselves and to others. But also just as a matter of them being able to be informed and helpful in the workplace when thinking about safety.”

Safety is a key issue for employers who allow their employees to work from home. But what are the safety risks they should look out for?

WFH injuries to consider

There are two main types of injuries that can occur for employees who work from home, Sowden, who works in the workplace relations team, said. The first are physical injuries.

“A lot of those at home tend to be focused on movement up and down stairs, ironically,” Sowden said. “But also a level of the work setup. Most people working from home should be fairly computer-based, so [it’s about] the actual work setup they've got at home and the quality of it, whether or not that's going to be safe.”

The other type of injury relates to mental health or psychological injuries, which Sowden said are a significant component when it comes to workers compensation claims.

“There's an enormous amount of matters or claims or injuries that are focused on psychological issues,” she said. “Those obviously don't have physical barriers – any interactions via email, telephone, Microsoft Teams meetings, text message, all of those modes of communication that enable interactions between staff, colleagues, management and third parties, so clients [and] customers.

“All of that can create risks because people, essentially their behaviour, might create a risk because their behaviour might be quite poor.”

Workers compensation and work from home

For employers, Sowden said, “You have an obligation to provide a safe place and system of work, if you are permitting people to work from home.”

And if an employee is injured while they’re working from home, they can lodge a compensation claim, she added.

“There have been certainly scenarios with staff going up and down stairs,” she said. “There was one recently with someone who fell at home and they had previously fallen at their workplace setting. So their subsequent injuries were just an aggravation of the earlier injury. And so they managed to achieve some compensation because they'd fallen in a physical work setting – basically a shop – and then they’d later fallen at home and it's all part of the same condition.”

While physical injuries could be due to movement within the house, psychological injuries could be due to means such as emails.

“A lot of psychological injuries would be to do with emails between the worker and management, for instance, about tasks, activities. And perhaps the tone or content of those communications might create an injury,” Sowden said. “And then that brings forth a psychological injury claim and that's compensable.”

And psychological injuries now form the majority of claims, potentially due to the climate we are currently in, she said.

“There's more acceptance within the community of getting treatment for psychological issues,” she said. “Certainly from our safety regulators nationally. In New South Wales we've had for a couple of years a code of practice, from SafeWork New South Wales, about how to manage psychosocial risks at work. So it's not surprising that that's…a huge topic and a huge focus for a whole range of employers and businesses. Because it can be quite expensive having a whole range of claims.”

What employers can do for WFH safety

“This isn’t a new problem,” Sowden said, referring to the time during the COVID-19 pandemic where companies were rushing to facilitate massive numbers of employees working from home due to shutdowns and closures.

What employers need is a two-fold approach, she said, when it comes to managing safety risks for employees who work from home. The first is around auditing.

“We're in a very different circumstance now,” she said. “We've moved on to a bit of a different phase. So, mindful of that, you have the time and ability to have a request that someone work from home, look at that request, and then impose some conditions on it.

“So ‘We need to see your work setup, we need to provide you with technology…we want to talk to you about it,’ and make sure that we think that that person has a safe setup at home. So that's the auditing part of it.”

The second part is ensuring that there is ongoing communication.

“If people are at home, depending on the way that your workplace culture is set up, they may either be very engaged and communicating with a whole range of people all the time because you've got some really good chat systems or meeting systems,” Sowden said. “Or they might not be. They might just be sitting away by themselves doing some things and the organisation or the management or HR may not really have a good understanding of …how they're going, which can create a bit of a risk.

“So if over time there's no check-ins or there's no team meetings or there's nothing to make sure that that person is engaged, and we have some idea of how they’re functioning, that probably creates quite a big risk for us.”

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