Out of office: don't shut the door on safety

Out of office: don

By Gaby Grammeno on 12 June 2018 If employees regularly work away from the office, what are our health and safety obligations?

This question was recently sent to our Ask an Expert service.

Q We have several employees who regularly work from home or while travelling to visit clients. How do we ensure these employees are safe and that we comply with WHS rules?

A The traditional idea of a ‘workplace’ – a building or site where the employees work, directed and overseen by a hierarchy of supervisors, managers and the employer – is increasingly irrelevant in today’s working environment. The place where an individual is carrying out a work-related activity can be almost anywhere – their own home, someone else’s home, a field, a forest, a foreign city, the open road.

More often than not, the person working away from the office is working alone and is isolated from the help and company of co-workers.

Whether the person is a surveyor, a community nurse, a farmer, foreign correspondent, taxi driver or cleaner, or simply an office worker working from home, all such workers face a variety of health and safety risks not encountered by their office-based colleagues.

Isolation from the internal politics and personalities may be a relief for some, but for many, there is a price to pay for working alone. The loss of camaraderie and exclusion from office gossip and solidarity may be keenly felt, and lone workers are often left ‘out of the loop’ when it comes to awareness of company plans and proposed changes. They can also be cut adrift from the company culture and shared understandings.

But the potential health and safety risks faced by lone workers are far more challenging, considering an employer’s duty of care.

This was tragically highlighted in March 2016 by the murder of a remote area nurse in South Australia. She had been on call, and was lured out of her place of residence on false pretences by a convicted sex offender who then raped and killed her.

The threat of violence is one of the more serious risks faced by people working away from the workplace. But, more commonly, driving and road-based risks take a greater toll. In 2016, about a third of serious work injuries in Australia involved vehicles, and in the 10 years to 2016, 64 per cent of work-related fatalities involved vehicles. Almost half of those were due to a collision on a public road.

An employer’s responsibilities

In all Australian states and territories, health and safety laws require that the risks of working away from the workplace must be managed.

Managing the risks starts with identifying the types of risks a person might face, and the strategies that could help to mitigate the danger – ‘risk control strategies’.

If the isolated worker is a driver, or driving a lot for work purposes, risk management will require attention to the safety, suitability and maintenance of the vehicle; matters such as schedules, work and rest periods; and behavioural issues including driver skills, speeding, phone use while driving, and alcohol and drug use.

In circumstances where the threat of violence is a foreseeable risk, management strategies that should be considered focus on measures to improve security, including training in conflict avoidance and management, arrangements for communication, prompt backup and support, and the provision of duress alarms.

Where geographical remoteness is an issue, location and tracking of the worker’s whereabouts and the reliability of the means of communication will be important considerations, as well as the provision of appropriate first aid or other emergency supplies.

If a worker is doing non-hazardous tasks such as office work from home, it should be sufficient to be reassured as to the hours of work, the suitability of the working environment and the equipment required, and matters such as training in procedures and agreement as to insurance and injury management.

If further measures are considered appropriate, the employer could provide information on the ergonomic set-up of work stations, including lighting, and the risks of an excessively sedentary lifestyle, with recommendations for regular breaks from computer-based activity.

Legal requirements

In most jurisdictions, the requirements for managing the risks of isolated workers are quite specific. In particular, if people are engaged in work that is isolated from the assistance of other persons because of location, time or the nature of the work, it must be possible for them to call for assistance (eg rescue, medical assistance or the attendance of emergency service workers), if they need it. This means that people who work alone must have a reliable means of communication, so that they can call for help if need be.

The means of communication must of course be backed up with a system to ensure assistance can be provided and promptly dispatched in the event of an emergency. Training in emergency procedures could also be vital, if the lone worker is in the position of dealing with a crisis of one kind or another.

Employers will be fulfilling their duty of care if they take all reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise the foreseeable risks.

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