An interview with Amy Towers, Risk Collective.
As the nature of work in modern times has changed due to COVID-19, we have seen a potential ongoing shift to working from home for employees. This poses a challenge for employers in relation to managing employee’s health and wellbeing and their overall safety whilst working at home. I (virtually) sat down with Amy Towers from Risk Collective to understand where the dangers are and how an employer can ensure that their staff are safe. I also had the opportunity to discuss some of the stage 4 restriction requirements and what these mean for employers.
See below, as Amy outlines working from home policies.
1. Why is a working from home policy important?
A working from home policy is important as it sets out a company’s commitment to ensuring the health and safety of its workers working from home. It demonstrates that the company recognises there are potential risks associated with working from home, and the company has systems in place to adequately manage the associated risks.
2. What are the ramifications to an employer if an employee is injured while working from home?
An employer has a duty of care to an employee to ensure their health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable. Therefore, the employer must identify, and adequately control the risks associated with working from home. If the employer fails to adequately control the risks and the employee is injured as a result of work, the employer has failed in their duty of care. Failing to meet a duty of care can result in prosecution and penalties under the health and safety Act.
3. What are the most common issues that arise from employees working from home?
The common issues that can arise for employees working from home include:
Ergonomic issues associated with inadequate workstation setup
Psychosocial hazards, such as job demands, working hours, limited support, feeling of isolation, inadequate communication, no clear boundaries between home-life and work-life, fatigue
4. What if an employee's working from home space is not deemed safe?
The employer/person conducting the business or undertaking, has a responsibility for managing work health and safety risks, by eliminating the risks, or if it is not reasonably practicable to do so, to minimise those risks so far as is reasonably practicable. If the employer determines that the working from home space is not up to standard, they are expected to consult with the worker to determine adequate controls. These are to be implemented to ensure the health and safety of the worker while working from home. For example, it may be that the worker is working from a laptop that is not at an adequate height. The employer consults with the employee and determines that a separate monitor that can be raised is required to ensure the employee can work safely at their workstation.
5. Am I required to provide my employee with equipment to enable them to work safely from home?
If the business engages a worker to undertake work for them, then the business is a duty holder and has responsibility to manage work health and safety risks. If it is identified that the working from home environment presents a health and safety risk to the employee due to inadequate equipment, then it is the responsibility of the duty holder (employer/person conducting the business or undertaking) to implement adequate controls to manage the risk. Therefore, in this case it would be necessary for the employer to provide the appropriate equipment to ensure the health and safety of the employee.
6. What about the mental health risks of working from home?
‘Health’ is defined in health and safety law as both physical and psychological health. An employer/PCBU has a responsibility to identify and control psychological health risks in the workplace, this includes the psychological health risks associated with working from home. Employers/PCBUs have a duty to consult with employees on health and safety matters. Therefore, to identify the mental health risks associated with working from home, employers should consult with their employees. In fact, employees should be consulted at each stage of the risk management process as they can assist with identifying and controlling psychological hazards and risks associated with working from home. Safe Work Australia also suggest minimising mental health risks of working from home by:
Maintaining regular communication with workers
Encourage and promote workers to have suitable breaks and work reasonable hours while working from home
Providing access to information and support for mental health and wellbeing services. Beyondblue has a freely available website or you may have an existing employee assistance program (EAP) you can promote, and
Appointing a contact person in the business who workers can talk to about any concerns related to working from home.
Resource: Safe Work Australia has prepared a fact sheet on Preventing psychological health injury under work health and safety laws. This fact sheet provides information to employers/PCBUs and workers on how to address psychological risks under the health and safety Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all persons at work.
7. Can my employee continue working from home if they are under instruction from the government to self-isolate due to contracting, close exposure to, or recently being tested for COVID-19?
If an employee is feeling well, for example, they have no or minor symptoms, it is possible for them to continue working from home, however this would be subject to the advice from the relevant treating clinician and discussions with the employee.
8. Can I direct my employee back to the usual workplace?
With regards to workplaces covered by Stage 4 restrictions, employees who work at a permitted workplace and cannot work from home can attend work, however the requirements set by DHHS must be adhered to. Permitted Worker Scheme – COVID -19. Under Stage 3 restrictions in regional Victoria, employees must work from home if they can. Further information on Stage 3 restrictions can be found on the DHHS website – Business and industry stage 3 restrictions
9. Permits for site workers, what are the rules around this?
From 11:59pm Wednesday 5 August, workplaces in Melbourne must be closed unless: the workplace is part of a permitted activity, or all employees are working from home. Employers that require their staff to attend a work site must issue a worker permit to their employees. Employers can issue a worker permit to their employee if:
The organisation is on the list of permitted activities
The employee is working in an approved category for on-site work, and
The employee cannot work from home.
Further details regarding worker permits can be found on the DHHS Victoria – Permitted Worker Scheme – COVID-19 website
10. Who are the permitted companies/projects? Who signs the permits?
Unless a workplace is part of a permitted activity, or all employees are working from home, the workplace must be closed. Permitted activities can be found on the DHHS website.
11. In terms of OHS assessments and walk throughs – how do we do that during COVID?
The directions do not explicitly state whether this is authorised. It is the responsibility of the business to determine if an OHS assessment and walkthrough is a permitted activity as per the information provided by DHHS. The business would also need to ensure they continue to meet their health and safety duties. Businesses should seek independent advice on this matter if they are unable to determine how to manage these assessments during COVID.
12. What additional OHS policies are needed for these workers?
Permitted Work Premises must have a completed COVIDSafe Plan to continue their operation in metropolitan Melbourne, and a COVIDSafe Plan is advised for regional Victoria. Therefore, it is necessary for the employer to ensure the worker is provided adequate information, instruction and training on the COVIDSafe Plan. In addition to the this, employers still continue to have their health and safety obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, therefore, ensuring workers are familiar with and understand other policies and procedures that are in place to ensure the health and safety of the worker, if necessary.
13. Is there any more critical information companies need to know?
Companies must keep up to date with relevant requirements set by the DHHS and WorkSafe Victoria. Therefore, establishing a system to routinely monitor these websites for new guidance is appropriate to determine if, and when, additional controls need to be implemented.
Thanks Amy, for taking the time to answer our questions and give us insights into working from home. If you would like to engage Amy for any safety consultancy requirements, audits or to ensure that your company is operating safely, you can reach her on her website or via her LinkedIn.
The material within this update is provided for general information and educational purposes, in summary form, on topics that are current when it is first published. The content does not constitute legal advice or recommendations and should not be relied upon as such.