Ensuring Good Occupational Health in your Remote Workforce
A number of different descriptive terms have been created to encompass employees who work remotely. These include e-workers, nomadic teleworkers, mobile teleworkers, multi-locational e-workers, and dispersed technical workforces. What these groups of workers have in common is that they are often isolated from colleagues and line managers.
For those involved in telework, where individuals work at home and connect to the office through IT systems, it may be that someone is working a number of days at home per week rather than working full-time at home. Alternatively, remote and mobile workers involve individuals out on the road, but who maintain contact with an office base through different types of technology, including telephone, portable computers or other equipment. This group can include sales people, repair engineers or those delivering your weekly shop. It is difficult to estimate the numbers involved in working this way and data from the USA suggests that 2.5% of the population are involved in teleworking. In 2001, it was estimated that there were one million people working as remote and mobile workers in the UK and Ireland.
Changes in technology have allowed such workplaces to develop for those working either at home or for those who work between clients’ or customer sites. There are potential cost savings for companies where there is no need to maintain a set number of workstations within an office environment. However, there are still a number of duties on the employer to ensure the health, safety and well-being of their staff.
This article focuses on individuals using computers in the home rather than other sorts of home working. As such, there is a clear process on managing home workers in relation to their health and safety and computer work. The health risks from computer work are well documented (musculoskeletal problems and visual fatigue, etc) and therefore the display screen assessment sets out the need to carry out a risk assessment of the workplace. The same risk assessment can be carried out in the home to ensure that the work equipment, including the chair, complies with requirements. Home workers can be trained to set-up and risk assess their own workstations, ensuring that they are tested on the same basis as office-based staff. Work organisation also needs to be considered to ensure that individuals take regular screen breaks to reduce the onset of fatigue. The issue of screen breaks is becoming more important as we understand the impact that sitting still for long periods has, which could be linked to changes in metabolism as well as the known impact on the musculoskeletal system.
For companies who are supplying equipment for home use, there are also specific requirements in ensuring the safety of the equipment. These will need to comply with the relevant standards and be evaluated for safety. Further factors to be considered are the implications for insurance (both employer and employee) and data security between on-site and off-site computers.
Remote and mobile workers
For mobile individuals working remotely, there are different potential hazards. These include driving and health, where not only fitness to drive needs to be considered, but also the risks associated with driving for long periods or the vehicle being used as a workplace. A variety of research projects have identified that there is an increased reporting of musculoskeletal symptoms (specifically back pain and shoulder pain) for individuals who spend more than 20 hours behind the wheel of a vehicle each week. In addition, there is an increased frequency of reporting of psychosocial symptoms, including poor mental well-being and long hours driving per week, low decision authority, role conflict and role ambiguity. Our own research identified increased reporting of psychological distress within the sample group, which was found to be associated with a simultaneous increase in reporting of chronic fatigue, ill-health symptoms and hours of driving; as one increased, so did the others.
Other risks identified within the remote and mobile workers’ group is that of handling loads in and out of vehicles, which again was associated with musculoskeletal problems. Assessing the risks from manual handling and taking steps to reduce risks are essential for this group. This includes a variety of different solutions, including ensuring vehicles are designed for ease of access, e.g. no lip around the boot over which to lift loads; ensuring required equipment is stored in manageable loads; and cases or boxes on wheels to aid ease of movement. Training employees to assess and reduce risks is an important part of this process to enable them to handle equipment safely.
The use of mobile technology does allow people to keep in touch, but does bring with it some issues that should be considered. Using vehicles as office space is not ideal from a musculoskeletal viewpoint. Where possible, employees should be advised to aim to carry out paperwork either back in the office or in areas such as service stations. Even the use of laptops is not recommended for long periods without an additional keyboard and docking station. Mobile telephones and smartphones have extended the range of tasks that can be carried out on smaller equipment, but ensuring people only use them for short periods and not prolonged typing tasks would be advised.
One of the other issues for remote and mobile workers is dealing with the public. This can be either in public spaces or in customers’ homes. Although it is common practice for those having repair work carried out to be asked to secure dogs away during the visit, it is also important to ensure that employees know that, if they feel uncomfortable or threatened, they can remove themselves from the situation. The use of active risk assessments in this situation can aid employees to manage risk and, where necessary, remove themselves or await help.
Managing health and safety
For both groups described above, there are a number of different factors that can influence how well their occupational health and safety can be managed. The fact that both groups work remotely is a major influence in to how best to ensure they can be safely managed. Although both groups have access to technology and email, email alone may not be the best way to get information across to them.
When managing remote workers, it is clear that occupational health and safety issues need to be highlighted. This can be as part of ongoing line management with employees, or in addition to this. Many remote workers do come into the workplace at regular intervals for team meetings and this can be an opportunity to identify and work with individuals on particular risks to which they feel exposed. The research on remote and mobile workers identified regular contact points during the day with line managers and colleagues; maintenance of those contacts is important. However, managing this group does need a change in the line manager; since visual contact is not always possible, trust to do the job effectively needs to be built into the skill set.
The available technology can also be used to encourage regular online meetings with groups of staff if their locale does not enable a regular visit to the office. This will give groups in similar roles an opportunity to discuss issues they are confronted with during their working day. Again, this allows another occasion for discussion of health issues and, where information is available, to support any problems. Emails alone are unlikely to be an effective way of disseminating information to this group, so asking your occupational health provider to deliver training or run toolbox talks online may allow an improvement in communication and understanding between those in the office and those out in the field.
In 2012, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health published a document entitled “Out of Site out of Mind? Managing Remote Workers.” This publication covers the health and safety issues identified when managing remote workers, as well as including a risk assessment pro forma that could be adapted for individual companies. This covers the safety aspects and requirements, but also asks those completing it to think about their health and wellbeing.
Completing a risk assessment is not the end of the process — risk assessments need to be reviewed by competent persons and any risks identified addressed. Although this is likely to be easier within a workplace, systems must be set up to review the risk assessments and contact made with remote workers to carry this out. Although it may not be necessary for the line manager to carry out a home visit, a discussion still needs to be had to ensure that employees are complying with best practice. For example, when carrying out a display screen equipment assessment, the risk assessment can be used to give guidance on setting up equipment and musculoskeletal health. In addition, information on work organisation and screen breaks can also be disseminated and discussed to ensure the employee understands the need for postural change.
Health surveillance may also be a requirement dependent on the work tasks carried out by employees, such as night work or exposure to different hazards. This, again, gives an opportunity for meeting and discussing different aspects of the work, including health.
One of the main issues that can affect those working outside the workplace is that of isolation and a perception of having no impact on the decision-making process. Although this may not be directly related to health, it has the potential to impact on mental well-being. Including your remote workforce in discussions and decision-making can be challenging for those managing this group. Where face-to-face discussion is not possible, technology and video-conferencing or online meetings can facilitate the process.
Remote working can reduce time spent travelling, allow contact with customers, and ensure good customer service to clients. Those individuals working in this way still need to feel part of the workforce and be participants in decision-making for all aspects of their work, including managing of their own health. The use of technology can aid us in that process, but will never remove the need for good managers to find new ways of managing and trusting their staff.