Many staff had to very quickly transition to working from home when the COVID-10 pandemic emerged earlier this year.
This has had many consequences for the workplace, particularly involving workers compensation issues and employers’ obligations to provide a safe workplace. Let’s take a look at some of the emerging issues and steps businesses can take to properly look after their staff. Employers have an overriding duty of care to ensure a safe work environment.
This applies when staff are at their usual place of work and also when they are working from home. Meeting this obligation can be more difficult when staff are working from home as a lot of what happens is out of the employer’s control.
Which is why it’s essential to ensure that procedures and policies are in place, and communicated, so employers can prove that they did everything they could to keep staff safe in the event of an accident or injury.
“Businesses should also monitor staff wellbeing at home, and provide support like counselling if people are struggling mentally.”
Working from home: need to know
When employees work from home their homes become the workplace. This means many of the things employers provide for their employees to keep them safe in the office need to be provided when their employees are working from home.This includes ensuring staff are properly set up with ergonomic desks, chairs and monitors that meet Australian safety requirements.
Businesses should also monitor staff wellbeing at home, and provide support like counselling if people are struggling mentally. This is particularly important at the moment, when so many people are worried about job security, pay cuts, health and isolation.
It’s also essential employees know what’s required of them working at home. It is therefore crucial for employers to continually update and communicate workplace policies and ensure these are readily available for employees to access.
Of particular importance is cyber security and confidentiality. Employees need to provide their employers with information about their office set up at home so their employers can assess and manage risks.
There are steps businesses should take so staff are safe at this time. For example, keep on top of current information about COVID-I9 from federal and state governments. It’s also an idea to refer to icare NSW, SIRA, SafeWork Australia and other state and federal government websites for updated workplace-related information. Also make sure employees are aware they need to adhere to social distancing rules even at home and personal hygiene requirements such as cleaning and disinfecting surfaces like their desk, computers and smart devices.
Businesses must also have all the right resources to act quickly if an employee or others in the home are exposed to a direct COVID-19 risk. Businesses must have policies to deal with COVID-19 issues and ensure any high-risk staff are given ongoing support and encouragement. Employers also need to continue to update disaster recovery policies.
This is particularly important now as states and territories are starting to ease restrictions. This will mean a return to the office, so procedures need to be put in place to ensure there is a safe and graduated return to work. For example, ensure safe distancing and hygiene measures are in place and adhered to. Consideration should also be given to only having skeleton staff return to the office for the safety of all employees.
What if an employee has an accident or sustains an injury when working at home?
Employees also need to know what they should do if they have an accident and suffer an injury at home.
They must seek medical assistance or use first aid. Also make sure they have adequate first aid kits at home and ensure they understand they should report an accident to their manager and HR department as soon as possible after an incident occurs.
Employers need to report serious injuries to their workers compensation insurer. Employees need to know that if they have suffered a work-related injury, they are entitled to make a workers’ compensation claim and, if they wish to pursue a workers compensation claim, the claim needs to be lodged as soon as possible after the incident has occurred.
The states and territories have different workers compensation requirements and tests. But in all cases the employee, who must be a ‘worker’ as defined in the legislation, will need to be able to demonstrate the injuries were incurred in the course of his or her employment.For example, in one instance an employee had a coughing fit while working from home and fell down a set of stairs and sustained serious injuries.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal found in the worker’s favour. The tribunal determined the staff member was in the course of her employment when the incident occurred.
Mitigating staff risks
It’s also important the work area at home meets OHS standards. This involves doing a safety assessment. It is strongly recommended employers have a checklist to ensure the employee’s home office meet these standards.
The list should include:
- Whether the workspace complies with ergonomic requirements. Ask staff to provide diagrams and photos of where they are working.
- Tripping hazards at home like stairs and slippery surfaces.
- What fire protection items the employee has at home and, if they do not have any items, ensure these are purchased and evidence is provided they are in the home and the employee knows how to use them.
- Security, fire exit access and access to first aid kits.
- Details of manual tasks employees do and if they have the right equipment necessary to complete these tasks. Ask staff to sign, date and return this check list and keep the information on the employee’s personnel file.
Review the information and discuss any modifications with the staff member to ensure a safe work environment. Remember everyone is in a new normal and that it’s unlikely we’ll go back to the way we used to work before COVID-19. So workplaces need to make plans for the future and not see the situation we’re currently in as temporary.
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