Home alone

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Homeworking can offer mutual benefits and greater flexibility, however, as far as employer's liability insurance is concerned, it should not be a case of out of sight, out of mind, writes Nick Wilson

Stumbling out of bed and settling down for a day's work at home is far more appealing to most than a traffic-punctuated trip to work.

Figures from the Labour Force Survey show that the number of homeworkers has increased from 345 920 in 1981 to 680 612 in 1998 - 2.5% of the employed workforce - and the numbers are only expected to increase.

The Health and Safety Executive defines homeworking as 'people employed to work at home' - excluding staff who occasionally work at home on a voluntary basis. It offers employees greater control of their work-life balance, while employers are able to organise labour resources in line with peaks and troughs of demand. BT, for example, claims to have saved £180m in property costs since it started encouraging homeworking in 1992.

However, homeworking is not without its problems: many people find it more stressful. This is often exacerbated by the varying health and safety standards applied to homeworkers, compared to their on-site colleagues.

HSE laboratory research into homeworkers has identified a range of work-related hazards, which those working at home perceive as causing accidents or ill health; including: poor seating, repetitive work and manual handling (for example, lifting heavy boxes). The study also highlights the likelihood that factors associated with homeworking, such as the presence of children and animals, can turn minor hazards into significant risks.

Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, as set out in Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Homeworkers, though covered by the Act, have a responsibility to ensure that their work does not adversely affect their own health and safety, or that of other people.

Many other regulations also apply to homeworkers, including the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which requires employers to make a risk assessment of their staff before they are allowed to work at home.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 requires equipment to be fit for purpose. Electrical equipment provided by the employer must be maintained under Electricity At Work Regulations, although the homeworkers' domestic electrical system remains their responsibility. Any hazardous substances and materials are subject to the provisions of Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. The employer even has to supply adequate first aid provision for homeworkers, dependant on the nature of the work activity and the risks involved, and cover the homeworker on the company's employer's liability insurance.

Unfortunately, many homeworkers consider themselves to be self-employed, believing health and safety laws do not apply. However, while a person working under the control and direction of a company is treated as self-employed for tax and national insurance purposes, they are treated as an employee in terms of health and safety.

A report by Ursula Huws, Home truths: key results from a national survey of homeworkers, identified a number of work-related health problems experienced by homeworkers - including musculoskeletal pain, eye strain and headaches - not to mention environmental hazards, unsuitable work equipment and psychological stress.

If an employer's initial risk assessment identifies any significant hazards, they must consider what steps to take to eliminate or reduce those risks. They must also consider the effects homeworking may have on other members of the household, particularly children and other vulnerable persons.

One difficulty employers have is not being able to supervise the behaviour of homeworkers to the same extent as site-based workers. Getting the homeworker to sign a completed risk assessment offers employers some protection, should the homeworker deviate from agreed work procedures.

Employers' liability cover should meet the cost of compensating employees' injuries or illness, whether they are caused on or off site. Insurers cannot exclude homeworkers from the policy, nor can conditions be imposed.

The total value of the cover provided by the policy must be at least £5m, although the level of cover includes costs; therefore some may wish to purchase supplementary cover. Separate motor vehicle insurance is also required for any injuries or illness relating to motor accidents that occur while employees are working for the organisation.

All employees should be provided with access to the current certificate of insurance. Normally, this is managed by displaying an up-to-date copy in the workplace, but alternative arrangements should be made for homeworkers so they can see that insurance cover is in place.

As it stands, the HSE have no statistics on accidents, injuries or ill health in homeworking. Whether this is down to under-reporting, ignorance of the regulations, employment status or the difficulty of establishing whether the accident was brought about by a work activity is unclear.

However, work-related incidents can affect others in the home, including children and visitors. Companies are, therefore, strongly advised to produce a policy for those working at home and ensure any advice or information is disseminated to the relevant staff. This way, both employees and employers can enjoy the many benefits of homeworking.

Nick Wilson is a chartered member of Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and a consultant with Weightmans Solicitors.

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