The importance of safe remote working environments

 

With lockdowns sending head office workers home again, and many in other states continuing a hybrid working arrangement, a global risk management provider urges businesses to develop occupational health and safety management (OHS) systems that ensure the working conditions for all employees are monitored and meet international standards, regardless of their location.

SAI Global is a trusted global leader in risk management solutions through its standards, assurance and training offerings in more than 130 countries. SAI Global provides OHS auditing, certification, training and technical solutions to businesses of all sizes in Australia.

Saeid Nikdel, workplace safety expert at SAI Global, says: “All employers should be aware of their responsibilities and participate in OHS matters to ensure they take active roles in the organisation’s OHS performance. This is not just confined to company premises, but also for those employees working from home, or anywhere else for that matter. If employers have no direct visibility of an employee’s home environment, there must be regular monitoring of their remote workplace and ongoing communication between the employer and remote employees to ensure that their workspace remains safe and the risks associated with remote working are controlled.

“Details such as ensuring that the employee has access to an ergonomic chair, their workspace is free from trip hazards, and the equipment they are operating to fulfill their duties is up to standard, are all critical factors to establish.”

SAI Global has implemented its own initiatives to ensure employee remote workplaces remain safe. This includes virtual ergonomic assessments, guidance to managers on managing remote teams, and guidance to employees to manage remote work. Over the last year, SAI Global has run several online campaigns and a series of webinars to support remote workers, including around mental health, self-care tips to prevent burnout, and financial wellbeing.

Increasingly, organisations, whether through operational necessity or pressure from staff, are shifting at least part of their workforce to remote work – and the hybrid working model for some employees looks set to stay. In its December 2020 report on the future of work[1], in which 120 Australian companies participated, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that the traditional working model of ‘office by default, remote by exception’ was no longer applicable, with the pandemic exposing Australians to a new way of working.

A working group was formed at SAI Global that includes human resources, workplace health and safety team members and business representatives to develop a hybrid working model. The team conducted a survey among eligible employees to gauge how and where they would like to work when COVID-19 concerns ease. Over half (55 per cent) of employees preferred to work a combination of office and remote working, 41 per cent prefer full-time remote working, and just 4 per cent prefer to work in the office full-time.

“At SAI, we have embraced remote working to the extent that most of our employees were working from home before the current lockdowns, so not only do we bring our experience of working with other organisations to bear when helping businesses manage their OHS obligations for remote head office workers, we also have the knowledge gained from conducting our own internal processes,” said Saeid.

How can businesses guarantee a safe working environmental for remote head office employees? Saeid says the most important tool is the employer’s OHS management system – yet too many businesses are lacking such a system. “We find that, while most organisations have an OHS policy and OHS procedures, many do not have the crucial management system that links both. Unlike an OHS policy, which is simply the framework for an organisation’s OHS commitments, the management system comprises the business processes and documentation – including policies, objectives, procedures, and governances – that control the conditions and factors impacting the health and safety of employees to keep them healthy and injury free. From here, procedures can be developed.

“We also see many organisations with a management system that conforms to an outdated OHS standard. We recommend compliance with the ISO 45001 international standard, which integrates workplace health and safety into the whole organisation and ensures the commitment of the company leaders as well as the participation of workers. Meeting the ISO 45001 standard will ensure organisations also meet State and Federal workplace laws, and minimise liability risks, because it is an effective standard for minimising risks and hazards.”

Under the ISO 45001 international standard for occupational health and safety, it is not just a remote worker’s workstation, equipment and immediate vicinity that employers must oversee and manage. There are also a range of other factors necessary to comply with this standard. These include the management of an employee’s workload and work hours, how the work is performed, good leadership, organisational culture, and the removal of anything that might lead to harassment and bullying.

A management system is designed to be integrated into an organisation’s operations. As such, compliance with ISO 45001 will also consider actual or proposed changes in the organisation’s operations, processes and activities.

Situations occurring in the vicinity of the employee’s workplace caused by work-related activities under the control of the organisation is also important, and a good OHS management system will consider past relevant incidents and emergencies inside, or external to, the company.

“Clearly, there is quite a range of factors for employers to consider when expanding their OHS management framework to remote workers, but when businesses engage SAI Global, we can help them identify opportunities to meet the requirements set out in the ISO 45001 OHS standard,” said Saeid.

“By establishing, implementing and maintaining processes for hazard identification that is ongoing and proactive, such as regular checklist updates, or face-to-face catch ups, employers can not only minimise health and safety risks for head office workers, but also leave themselves less exposed to personal liability claims for incidents that occur in remote workplaces.”

 

SAI Global shares its tips for businesses to ensure its head office employees remain safe when working remotely.

 

  1. Ensure employees have access to an ergonomic chair. Check that employees have a work chair that is solid, stable and provides adequate back support. A good chair should be able to adjust the seat height and backrest height to support its user. If armrests are being used, they should fit under the desk to not restrict the user from getting close to the desk.

 

  1. Provide guidance on an ergonomic workstation set up. Employers should provide guidance on an ergonomic workstation that allows the employee to be able to sit up right with a 90-degree angle at the hips and knees, with their feet flat on the floor or on a footrest. Shoulders should be relaxed, with arms at a 90 to 95-degree angle at the elbows, and neutral wrists. Workstations should also be set up to prevent repetitive twisting of the neck and back, and there must be sufficient space under the desk.

 

  1. Ensure equipment is set up and used correctly. Where possible, employees should only be using equipment that has been issued by your organisation and has been recently tagged and tested. When frequently using a laptop, employees should have a detachable keyboard and mouse. Employers should also check that monitors are set up approximately one arm length away from the user, and the top of the monitor is at eye level, to prevent neck strain and discourage slouching. Monitors should also be positioned in a way to minimise glare from both natural and artificial light sources. Employees moving heavy or awkward items should have access to trolleys or other mechanisms.

 

  1. Check the work area has adequate lighting and ventilation. Businesses should ensure an employee’s work area has adequate lighting suited to their work tasks. The lighting level needs to be sufficient for visual tasks to be completed without eye strain. Ensure workstations are well ventilated and there is a sufficient level of thermal comfort, plus ensure room heaters should be correctly positioned away from combustible materials such as paper or curtains. It’s important to also consider any noise disturbances that may affect employees working from home.

 

  1. Check electrical equipment is safe to use. Beyond working equipment, employers could ask their employees to check plugs, power sockets, leads and switches are free from damage and safe to use.

 

  1. Encourage employees to take adequate and regular breaks. Ensure employees take a break every 30 minutes from their keyboards or when undertaking repetitive actions. They should also stand up at least once every hour. Where possible, breaks should be taken outside, with some exercise or other physical activity as part of their working day.

 

  1. Provide guidance to managers on managing remote teams. Organisations can help managers to identify communication strategies to ensure regular contact with employees. Scheduling regular meetings or catch ups with staff can help them to maintain ongoing contact with teams and foster positive working relationships.