Sophie Meixner from the ABC reports that more and more employees in Australia are being encouraged or directed to work from home in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Communications giant Telstra has told its office-based employees to work from home until at least the end of March, while other companies are busy developing contingency plans for employees to work from home in the future.
But what if you injure yourself while working at home, or don’t have the proper equipment to do your job safely?
We spoke with two experts in employment law and industrial relations about employees’ rights and employers’ obligations when office-based workers worked from home.Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap
What if I hurt myself while working at home?
Robin Price, a lecturer in employment relations at Central Queensland University, said employers have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring a safe work environment, wherever that work is carried out.
“If you’re an employee and you’re working for someone, they have a duty of care for your health and safety,” she said.
This includes ensuring your home workspace has a safe way to evacuate during a fire, as well as being equipped with smoke detectors and fire alarms.
Paul Harpur, from the University of Queensland Law School, said the most common issue to arise was when the employee was injured at home in the course of their employment.
“So [for example] when an employee falls down the steps answering the front door or slips over in the home office,” he said.
“If the employee is working from home, in most cases the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance will cover that employee.”
Dr Price said there were several issues employers had to ensure were compliant with health and safety duties.
“Have you got an ergonomic chair, how good’s your screen, if you sit there all day are you likely to have a repetitive stress injury?” she said.
How will my employer be able to tell if my home is safe?
Many employers will already have a working at home policy in place that outlines their method to verify the safety of employees’ work environments.
Dr Price said the problem facing many companies — particularly smaller ones — was developing a work-at-home policy at short notice due to the fast-moving nature of the coronavirus outbreak.
She said the best option for companies may be to develop a ‘self-check’ policy for employees to verify to the company they were working in a safe environment.
“What most organisations are having to [implement] is a policy where people have to check their own workplace,” she said.
“[Companies] are not going to be able to get someone to drop by to everyone’s house and check it out [for compliance].
“I would imagine that for organisations that are doing this all at once, [self-checking is] probably going to be the only practicable way to do it.
“From an employer’s perspective, if you can show that you have trained your employees on how to conduct their work safely, then that’s a protection for you.”
Professor Harpur said there were some easy ways employers could comply with obligations at short notice.
“With modern technology, an easy fix for employers here is to have the employee use Facetime, Skype or Zoom to show them [their] workspace and how they will move around in it,” he said.
“If it is not safe, and often we work in non-ideal home workspaces, then employers should not let employees work in that space.”
What if I don’t have the right equipment at home?
Professor Harpur said if employers wanted to ensure workers were using proper equipment, they could loan or supply employees with office furniture.
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“Employers could find a way to let employees salary sacrifice purchasing office furniture or provide staff old furniture that is being disposed of,” he said.
“Or considering the timeframe confronting employers now, perhaps let employees take an office chair from work to their home to use during the pandemic on the understanding it will be returned after the crisis is over.”
Professor Harpur said it was advisable for employers to provide workers with a work laptop with the company’s anti-viral software built in.
“Employers should ensure that employees’ digital environment is secure,” he said.
“This is easily done when an employee uses a work laptop with security systems built into it.”
Giving working at home a try may have some upsides
Dr Price said both employees and employers may discover surprising benefits to working from home.
“I think most jobs can be done from home — a very large percentage,” she said.
“But we’ve not necessarily had to think about or be creative about, how we deliver all of the services that we do.
“Most of the research shows that people actually are more productive when they’re working at home.
“It takes a couple of hours out of your day, so you get your commute time back, and you’re far more relaxed.”