Accidents at Work: Is it safer to work from home or at the office?

Man sitting at the kitchen table working from home on laptop

Angus Fergusson of Mooneerams Solicitors in Cardiff looks at whether those working from home are more at risk of suffering an injury in what would be called an accident at work if the same type of incident happened in the office.

The Health and Safety Executive’s statistics for 2018/2019, reveal that there were 581,000 self-reported accidents at work causing non-fatal injuries during the year. Whilst office accidents will not be responsible for the vast majority of those reported injuries, it remains the case that office workers do get injured in workplace accidents. Here are the more common types of office accident :

  1. Tripping and falls –these are the most common cause of office accident injury claims and are caused by:
  • Cables that trail across the floor
  • Badly fitted carpets or carpet tiles
  • Work equipment lying all over the floor – box files, mounds of paperwork etc.

 

  1. Lifting – accidents that are caused by lifting heavy objects are the cause of many lower back and neck injuries, in particular. Whilst lifting accidents happen more often in an industrial setting, lifting heavy boxes and office equipment can still be the cause of injury/ in offices too.

 

  1. Objects falling from height – in an office setting these types of accidents usually involve boxes or heavy files falling from high up shelves or large cupboards, falling onto a nearby worker.

 

  1. Workstations – if they are not properly set up for the specific individual user, then a number of injuries can occur to the employee – back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome (pressure on a nerve in the wrists) and eye strain are just some of the problems that can be caused by an incorrectly set up work station. Examples of ways in which a workstation has been incorrectly set up include:
  • Using a chair that does not support the employees back, correctly
  • Computer screen set up at an incorrect height
  • Not having a wrist support to keep the wrists at the right angle for when keyboard typing
  • Allowing light to shine onto the computer screen, resulting in a glare
  • Working at a desk that is at the wrong height for the individual who is using it

 

  1. Stress at work – everyone can get stressed out at work from time to time. However, stress that is caused by acts or omissions by the employer and that happen repeatedly over a period of time, can leave the employer facing a claim from the affected employee. Successful stress claims that are made against employers usually come about as a result of  one of the following situations:
  • The employee has not been trained properly
  • Giving an employee an excessive caseload and expecting too much of them.
  • Bullying or harassment in the workplace

None of the accident examples listed above is specific to working in the office. Offices are made for working in, but most homes aren’t designed with working from home in mind.

Isn’t it the case then that there could be more scope for people to suffer workplace accident injuries whilst working from home, simply because the set up isn’t as professional as it is in an office?

 

Does an employer’s duty of care still apply to working from home?

Employers owe their employees’ a duty of care. At common law, this is a duty to take reasonable care to ensure their employees safety whilst they are at work. The common law duty of care still applies to employees when they are working from home.

An employer would be expected to carry out a risk assessment of an employee’s home working conditions before allowing them to work from home. In fact, this is a requirement of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

The risk assessment would be aimed at ensuring that home working conditions are suitable for the type of work that the employee does. In most cases, the sheer logistics involved would prevent employers from going round to all their employee’s homes to carry out the risk assessment.

Instead, it’s likely that individual workers will be required to self-certify that their home is a suitable place for them to work from. This will usually be done after the home worker has followed health and safety instructions provided by their employers.

 

So, an employee could sue their employer for an accident at work that occurs whilst working from home?

In the office, an employer has total responsibility for the working environment that their employees work in. However, when working from their home it is the employee who has control of the environment that they are working in i.e. their home.

If an employer has worked with the employee to carry out a satisfactory risk assessment and has provided them with all the tools with which to carry out their work at home, then there is a strong argument for saying that the employer has fulfilled the duty of care to their employee.

If an employee does then have an accident at home whilst working unless it can be proved that the employer had been negligent in relation to the specific accident in question, it’s unlikely that a court would find in favour of the employee should an accident at work claim subsequently be brought.

Consideration has to be given too, to the reasons why most people have been forced to work from home in recent months. The Covid19 pandemic has resulted in previously unheard of measures being taken in all walks of life. Employers and their workforces have been forced to take extraordinary measures in attempt to save businesses and jobs. The courts will be mindful of all of this, should they be asked to adjudicate in an accident at work claim brought by someone working from home during the pandemic.

The one area that may be treated with less sympathetic judicial scrutiny, is if an employee is left to their own devices and not provided with proper support from their employer in terms of ensuring that their mental health is looked after.

Employers should be ensuring that management or their human resources teams are checking in regularly to see that their employees are coping well, that they are not feeling overworked or under supported and to listen to and try and allay any concerns that the employee has.

This would fall under the remit of an employer’s duty of care to their employees. If employers are seen to be failing in their duty in this respect,  and an employee suffers a mental health condition as a result of this lack of care, it is one area in which we might expect to see an increase in the numbers of accident at work claims being brought by those working from home, against their employers.