In light of the coronavirus pandemic more there has been a huge surge in the number of people working from home. The idea that the virus will be around for some time to come would suggest that this trend will continue. Indeed, the recent changes to working practices have prompted many businesses to re-evaluate their business model to see whether more employees can work from home in the future. As a consequence, there are many issues to consider with regard to health and safety and potential personal injury claims.
Employer duty of care
Even though an individual may be working from home this does not exempt their employer from a duty to ensure their health and well-being. Obviously, they cannot control the home working environment on an ongoing basis but there are various checks and safety procedures to carry out. So, while this can be a little bit of a grey area the idea that an employer is admonished of their responsibilities is wrong. That said; there is also an obligation on behalf of the employee to operate in a suitable safe manner and abide by company health and safety guidelines. In many ways this is more of a two-way street compared to an employee operating from an employer’s premises.
Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 act is one of many on the statute books regarding health and safety in the workplace. While the regulations themselves do not apply to “domestic premises” there is still an obligation on your employer to ensure the environment is safe and secure. No doubt over the coming months we will see the responsibilities of employers tested in the courts when it comes to employees working from home. Whether the UK government might decide to introduce further legal protections for employees and employers remains to be seen but this is certainly a possibility if the trend continues.
Type of work
It is probably useful to look at a number of different types of work carried out from a home base and the responsibility of employers in these situations. Typically they include: –
- Office type work
The vast majority of homework will include answering emails, dictating letters, making phone calls, and responding to customer communications. As an employee it is the responsibility of the company to supply you with the appropriate equipment which has been checked, maintained, and is safe to use. The idea that you are should use your own computer, your own printer with no contributions towards your Internet connection is simply wrong. This is a slightly different angle to the personal injury claims subject matter but it is certainly one you should discuss with your employer at a relatively early stage.
In certain circumstances, such as possibly the manufacturing of toys, all employers have a duty of care towards their employees and also the quality of the goods manufactured. In this scenario, where adhesives and other chemicals might be used, it is very important to have a safe and secure environment in which to work. There’s also the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) which has been very much in the news of late. All of this should be supplied as standard to those carrying out manufacturing procedures from the home and it is likely the employer will need to visit your premises to carry out various checks.
The issue of the standard of products manufactured in the home environment is one which could lead to personal injury claims from customers. Therefore, the employer must at all times be confident that the goods have been manufactured to a high standard and they are safe. In the event of issues further down the line, it will be the employer who would be liable to a personal injury compensation claim. Just because an employee is working from home does not remove the umbrella of protection supplied by the employer, both practically and legally.
- Home base for outside services
In light of the lockdown many offices were closed as a precaution and even those supplying vital services such as gas/electrical checks saw their working environment switched to home. There are numerous issues to consider with regard to this type of setup including:-
- Equipment required to communicate with the business hub
- The supply of PPE
- Guidance with regards to health and safety (ongoing)
For example, if one of these vital services required an employee to visit the premises of a customer then in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic there are safety issues to address. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that all of their employees are fully aware of the new working environment and regulations.
Additional home-based working
While the examples above will give you a broad overview of what to expect when working from home, especially in the current environment, this list is by no means exclusive. Unfortunately, some employers might attempt to cut corners with regards to health and safety in the home and therefore may pay the price further down the line with personal injury compensation claims.
Training and guidance
Under other regulatory acts, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act etc 1974, employers have an ongoing legal obligation regarding the training offered to their employees. This training can be held face-to-face, although difficult in the current environment, virtually over the Internet or via paper/online-based training. The bottom line is that even in the current coronavirus pandemic all employers still have a legal obligation to maintain training and guidance for their employees. This will include issues such as:-
- Ongoing health and safety training
- Regular updates were applicable
- Risk assessment
- Risk management
- Appointing appropriately experienced personnel for specific tasks
- Abiding by government regulations
Again, while this list is not exclusive it will give you an idea of the regulatory obligations under which all employers operate. It is likely in the current environment that employers will be in more regular contact with their employees regarding health and safety updates and changes in regulations.
It is fair to say that a number of businesses are under extreme financial pressure at this moment in time with many forced to take advantage of the furlough scheme. If you are still working for your employer, in the home environment, your protection regarding mental pressure and excessive work overload is still very much in place. As we have mentioned on numerous occasions, the courts recognise mental injuries in the same way as physical injuries. Mental pressure can include:-
- Pressure to hit impossible targets
- Excessive working hours
- Lack of breaks
- Exclusion from employer discussions
While we all fully appreciate the challenges faced by employers in the current environment the situation is very similar for employees. Many are concerned whether they will have long-term employment with their current employer and this may prompt them to work excessive hours as a means of “proving themselves”. While this in itself cannot directly be associated with their employer, all employers have an obligation to monitor the mental and physical well-being of their staff. If inadvertently an employee felt pressured to work excessive hours, with or without additional remuneration, this could open the door to a personal injury claim further down the line.
Gathering evidence for a personal injury claim
If you believe that you have been effectively mistreated by your employer whether as a consequence of health and safety issues, pressure to hit impossible deadlines, or being asked to do tasks which are beyond your experience, you may have a claim for personal injury compensation. What you might find is that taking individual incidents in isolation may indicate a relatively weak case but the cumulative impact of varying types of pressure should highlight potentially illegal activity by your employer. Where possible you should gather evidence including:-
- Copies of emails
- Work diary
- Direct and indirect threats
- Substandard health and safety advice
- A lack of safety equipment
- Failure to update employees on regulatory changes
- Pressure to work
It is safe to say we are in a relatively unique environment both from a physical and a legal perspective. Where an employee feels at risk, whether because of medical issues in their family or direct activities as an employee, they should communicate their concerns to their employer as soon as possible. The idea is simple, work together to try and find some middle ground where the employee feels safe and secure and they are able to carry out their working activities. If an employee’s issues cannot be addressed satisfactorily then in theory, in the current environment, they can refuse to work on health grounds.
Over the next few months we will likely see this “refuse to work” option challenged in the courts as a means of gaining clarification. Looking at it from a practical point of view you would hope that common sense prevails and both parties are able to come to an agreement. Where this is not possible, and pressure is placed on an employee, then this may result in a personal injury claim.
Sympathy from the courts
A number of parties have expressed concerns regarding the huge pressure on businesses in light of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. There have been suggestions that the courts may be a little more appreciative of this position as and when employees bring personal injury compensation claims before them. Perhaps the courts will offer individual guidance on a case-by-case basis to see if an out-of-court settlement can be reached. However, there will be some cases that are effectively “open and shut” where an employer’s duty of care has not been fulfilled.
The truth is that at this point in time nobody really knows how legal action as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will pan out. However, any concerns regarding the financial predicament of businesses preventing them from covering any compensation awards are probably misplaced. The vast majority of companies will have the relevant insurance in place to cover such issues.
There is no doubt that the current working environment has changed dramatically as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. The government has been relatively quick-footed in arranging financial support for businesses and individuals who have suffered as a consequence. The issue of personal injury claims will be an interesting subject in the weeks and months ahead. We will likely see a raft of virtual court hearings prior to the return to physical court appearances. However hopefully the vast majority of claims and counter claims can be resolved “out-of-court” thereby ensuring that no party is financially deprived in the short-term.