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Research and Briefings

Working from home: Safe from coronavirus, but how safe is the new “workplace”?


Published on 30th March 2020

The rapid onset of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has resulted in an unprecedented level of disruption to the workplace of everyday New Zealanders. Even with the move to alert level three from 11.59pm on Monday 27 April, many New Zealanders continue to find themselves working from home for the foreseeable future.

Employers are now presented with the challenge of ensuring their employees are equipped and prepared to work from home, both physically and mentally.

Challenges & Legislative Obligations

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) requires employers to manage the workplace health and safety risks of employees. If an employer has recommended or instructed employees to work from home, as is the case for many New Zealanders currently, workplace health and safety obligations extend to working from home arrangements.

In order to comply with the legislation, employers must consult with employees to identify risks in the workplace and eliminate or control what is reasonably practicable for these risks.

Completing work from home risk assessments and assisting employees to reduce any risks has become a high priority. These actions will enable employers to not only meet their legislative obligations, but manage their employees from both a physical safety and mental wellbeing perspective, and successfully negotiate the workplace challenges this current pandemic is creating.

While flexible working has gained popularity over the past few years, many employers and employees are testing new work from home arrangements at such a scale for the very first time. For the majority of the workforce who have not partaken in regular work from home conditions, employees can find setting up their home office challenging.

Safety Prioritisation

As social and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic continue to fallout, HR leaders and team managers are faced with challenges and pressures unforeseen months ago. The prioritisation of their colleagues is paramount and similarly requires consideration to a scale that was not needed previously.

Risk Considerations for Employers

There are substantial difficulties for employers to acquire a full understanding of every employee’s home workplace. However, employees are still required to ensure to following:

  • The home workplace is a safe and healthy area to work;
  • Systems of work at home are safe and healthy;
  • Appropriate training like home office ergonomics is provided;
  • All incidents are investigated and hazards are adequately controlled;
  • Employees are supported in their home environment.

Helping Employees Adjust and Thrive at Home

The education and adoption of appropriate strategies to mitigate the risks borne by both physical and mental health conditions are paramount for remote working scenarios. Without needing to invest in an external consultant, employers can help improve the health and safety of employees while they are working from home:

  1. When employees are working from home, we need to remember they are actually in their home – where they live their lives outside of the workplace. It is therefore important that there is a clear differentiation between what is “in the course of employment” and normal activities.

    Employers should form a clear understanding of working hours, including breaks and recognising how working from home may impact this. Employers should take note of where employees will be working i.e. home office, spare room, or study. As this will be the primary place of work, which an employer must ensure is safe.

  2. An employee’s home workstation set up, posture and equipment is critical. Poor ergonomics leads to musculoskeletal issues, including muscle strain and a host of other short and long-term injuries, as well as tripping or falling hazards. 

    Employers should enquire if employees if they have appropriate equipment to set up a home office. If not, employers should assist in this process by purchasing new equipment, borrowing equipment from the office or encouraging employees to buy their own equipment. Getting employees to create as much of a comfortable, ergonomic space as possible is important.

    Traditionally, an external Work Health and Safety consultant can validate an employee’s home working environment. Thanks to video technology, one of the most popular tools Marsh clients are relying on right now are remote home office ergonomic assessments and reviews. Video saves cost and time for employers and protect employees, and can be just as effective as in-person assessments.

    “In collaboration with a major insurer, Marsh are conducting virtual ergonomic assessments and workshops to analyse an employee’s home workstation before costly claims occur. Mitigating risk reduces the likelihood of costly claims when working from home," explains Jacqueline Milson.

Questions that employers can pose to their employees before recommending a corrective course of action include:

  • Is your chair adjusted to optimise posture?
  • Are shoulders positioned slightly behind hips and knees level with hips?
  • Is your keyboard and monitor the proper height and distance?  

Common exercises that can be recommend for home office environments include:

  • Chin Tuck: Look straight ahead. Move chin backwards with chin parallel to the floor. Repeat 5-10 times.
  • Back Rotation: Whilst seated, rotate head and shoulders to look behind you. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
  • Lower Back: Stand up. Support your low back with both hands and gently arch back. Hold for 5-10 seconds.

If you would like to discuss your remote working WH&S needs, please email us enquiries@wellnz.co.nz

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