Home-based workers still subject to Work Safety rules

NOVEMBER 29, 2014
THE increasing number of people working from home is a feature of modern life.
Some people run home-based businesses. New mums work from home while looking after young children. And more employers are allowing, even encouraging, employees to work from home rather than come into a main workplace.

With a National Broadband Network, working from home and flexible work practices will become options to more people.

A recent article in The Australian noted that working people are now working from everywhere or anywhere they can be productive — home, office, library, coffee shop, their car, in a park.

But there are challenges with any new paradigm. Not the least of these is how a home-based worker is going to maintain a work-home-life balance.

Where an employer allows an employee to work away from the normal workplace, under work health and safety legislation the employer has the same health and safety obligations for the workplace and working environment as it would if the worker was working at the usual premises. This is the case even though the worker may be in an environment over which the employer largely has no control. These obligations may extend to contractors, labour hires, and even volunteers.

Not all people will be suitable for home-based work. An employee must be able to work as efficiently and effectively as if the employee were at the central workplace under the supervision of their employer.

The usual work health and safety considerations still apply: environmental factors such as temperature and ventilation; preventing musculoskeletal disorders from poor postures and overuse; providing a proper ergonomic workstation and adjustable chair for work involving screen-based equipment; electrical safety of equipment, and so on. Although there may be a designated working area in the home, other areas such as the kitchen and bathroom will be part of the workplace, as they are in a normal office.

Then the employer needs to consider the type of work activities, how to provide adequate information, instruction, training and supervision of workers, and ensuring employees don’t work excessive hours without breaks, leading to fatigue.

Don’t forget the duties owed to non-employees who attend the home work environment (children, neighbours and visitors).

Then there are other less tangible — but equally important — aspects of working from home that still need to be considered.

For example, worker stress — arising from isolation, lack of support from colleagues or managers — may be more of an issue for a person working at home than in a traditional workplace.

How does one get away from work and all its hassles if the work is at home? A woman may choose to work from home so she can look after children. So does the employee have dedicated child-free time to undertake the work?

Obviously, working from home can provide benefits to the employee and the organisation, including flexible working hours, higher quality work due to improved morale and fewer interruptions, retention and recruitment of employees (from a wider pool of candidates) and reduced travelling times.

But each worker, home-based or not, has a right to finish the working day in roughly the same physical and mental condition as they started.

Working from non-traditional workplaces — including homes — is going to increase. Now is the time to consider how that can be done safely.