Risk assessment and telework - checklist

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Liesbeth Daenen, Idewe (External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work), Leuven, Belgium, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, Department of Physiotherapy, Human Physiology and Anatomy, Faculty of Physical Education and Physiotherapy, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium, Pain in Motion International Research Group, Brussels, Belgium, Thomas Meers, Idewe (External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work), Leuven, Belgium, David Verwimp, Idewe (External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work), Leuven, Belgium, Kristien Selis, Idewe (External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work), Leuven, Belgium, Lode Godderis , Idewe (External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work), Leuven, Belgium, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

Introduction to telework

Definition and Incidence

Telework is defined as the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers, for work that is performed outside the employer’s premises[1]. Although telework refers to mobile working from any location other than the office, working from home is the most common phenomenon. This article focuses on working from home, referred to as home-based telework.

The increasing digitalisation and availability of new technologies make teleworking accessible for many office workers. Technology and tools such as videoconference calling, cloud computing technology and WIFI availability allow workers to communicate and stay in connection with colleagues, saving significant amounts of commuting time. Home-based telework is on the rise for several years now.

Regulatory framework

The European Framework Agreement on Telework from 2002 laid down rules to ensure that teleworkers benefit from the same health and safety protection rights as employees working at the employer’s premises[2]. It remains the employer’s responsibility to prevent occupational risks and, if not possible, to assess and reduce them. Directive 89/391 and relevant daughter directives, national legislation and collective agreements including employment conditions, data protection, privacy, work equipment, health and safety and training apply equally to teleworkers. Within this framework, it is also the responsibility of the teleworker to apply the collective agreements and comply with the company rules in his daily work routine and organisation.

Over the last years, several countries (i.e. most of the European countries) have reinforced the spirit of the European legislation by publishing additional regulations. For instance, Belgium has published a CLA (i.e. Collective Labour Agreement)[3] recommending that teleworkers should receive more specific information and guidelines on prevention measures such as adjustment of the workplace, correct use of screens and support in terms of technology and ICT. This guidance and prevention measures are based on a multidisciplinary risk assessment.

Occupational safety and health risks related to telework

Telework has potential advantages such as gain in time or less stress by not commuting, better work-life balance, increased autonomy, improved concentration and higher productivity. In contrast, home-based teleworking is also related to drawbacks that may have a negative impact on worker’s mental and physical health. Research has demonstrated that teleworkers tend to work longer hours at home in order to ensure that they meet or exceed supervisor’s expectations[4]. As result, they sit for longer periods of time with fewer work interruptions than in the office[5]. This in combination with poor ergonomic home workstations may lead to the development or exacerbation of health problems such as musculoskeletal disorders[6][7][8][9]. In addition, telework is often associated with blurred boundaries between work and home, an increased isolation from colleagues and a lack of face-to-face interaction and support from colleagues and supervisor[10]. Teleworking for more than 2.5 days a week is shown to be disadvantageous for, among others, co-workers’ relationships[11][12]. Also hazards related to the work environment such background noise, too high or too low temperature and poor air quality may affect teleworker’s health and wellbeing[13]. In addition, safety issues such as risk of stumbling and falling (e.g. over floating network or laptop cables) or electric hazards may occur at the home workstation as well[14].

3. Risk assessment related to telework (and its related challenges)

Organisations involved in teleworking need policies and procedures to ensure that they manage the occupational and safety hazards related to telework efficiently. A multifactorial risk assessment, from the perspective of the teleworker and the employer, is the necessary first step in identifying the risk factors related to telework. This risk assessment should focus on workstation ergonomics and equipment, work environment, psychosocial factors, work organisation as well as safety hazards related to telework. It provides information that is key to take the next steps towards a prevention (on how to avoid the hazards) and an action plan (on how to reduce and control the risks if they could not be prevented). Even though employees are working from home, the responsibility for carrying out a risk assessment remains with the employer.

3.1. How to perform a Risk Assessment (RA)?

Risk assessment is the process to evaluate workers’ safety and health risks to which they are exposed at work. It is a systematic evaluation of all aspects that could cause harm or injury. A step-by-step approach is a good way of carrying out a risk assessment. The following steps could be taken:

Step 1: Identify the hazards in each risk domain related to telework. Identify the teleworkers at risk.

Step 2: Estimate the risks in terms of severity and the probability to cause harm. Set priorities and tackle the most important ones first.

Step 3: Determine the appropriate prevention measures, budget and timing for implementing the prevention measures.

Step 4: Implement the proposed prevention / action plan.

Step 5: Regularly (re)evaluate the assessment and the impact of the prevention measures. If necessary, adjust the assessment and prevention / action plan.

On the one hand, it is important to carry out a risk assessment of the home situation. In most cases, the employee will do this assessment himself. Note that the workplace at home can also be visited by a prevention advisor in order to carry out this assessment, but only with the agreement of the employee to access the home office. In that case, the OSH expert will carry out the risk assessment.

On the other hand, it is also important to carry out an analysis at the organisational level: are the right materials provided, are employees adequately trained, are sufficient measures taken to prevent social isolation, etc.? This risk assessment is then carried out by the OSH expert, in many cases this is the employer himself.

3.2. What is a checklist and how to use this checklist?

A checklist, a list of items to be checked and filled out by a person based on his findings, helps to identify hazards and potential prevention measures. It forms part of a workplace risk assessment.

A checklist is not intended to cover all the risks of every workplace but to help you put the method into practice. It ensures that the evaluation of the workplace and task performance is systematic and consistent to avoid forgetting assessment of hazards with potentially major consequences.

A checklist is only a first step in carrying out a risk assessment. Further information may be needed to assess more complex risks and in some circumstances you may need an expert’s help.

For practical and analytical reasons, a checklist presents problems/hazards separately, but in workplaces they may be intertwined. Therefore, you have to take into account the interactions between the different problems or risk factors identified. At the same time, a preventive measure put in place to tackle a specific risk can also help to prevent another one. It is equally important to check that any measure aimed at reducing exposure to one risk factor does not increase the risk of exposure to other factors.

It is essential that the checklist is used as a means of development support, not simply as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. The checklist in attachment, which consists of a part for the teleworker and a part for the employer, is based on positive statements that invite reflection and action if necessary. YES means ‘it is OK’, NO means reflection and action is needed. Actions can include optimisation of the workplace that the teleworker can do himself or can include a meeting between teleworker and supervisor to discuss and find a solution together.

See the risk assessment checklist here.

References


  1. Eurofound and the International Labour Office. Working anytime, anywhere: the effects on the world of work. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union; 2017.
  2. Commission staff working paper - Report on the implementation of the European social partners' - Framework Agreement on Telework, COM(2008) 412 final. Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52008SC2178&qid=1621331229425.
  3. Conseil National du travail: Convention Collective de Travail n° 149 du 26 Janvier 2021 concernant le télétravail recommandé ou obligatoire en raison de la crise du coronavirus, Convention Collective de Travail n° 85 du 9 Novembre 2005 concernant le télétravail, modifiée par la Convention Collective de Travail n° 85 bis du 27 février 2008. Available at: http://www.cnt-nar.be/Cct-liste.htm.
  4. Lal, B., & Dwivedi, Y. K. (2010). Investigating homeworkers’ inclination to remain connected to work at “anytime, anywhere” via mobile phones. Journal of Enterprise Information Management, 23, 759–774
  5. Fukushima N, Machida M, Kikuchi H, Amagasa S, Hayashi T, Odagiri Y, Takamiya T, Inoue S. Associations of working from home with occupational physical activity and sedentary behavior under the COVID-19 pandemic. J Occup Health. 2021 Jan; 63(1):e12212. doi: 10.1002/1348-9585.12212.
  6. Ariens, G.A., et al., Are neck flexion, neck rotation, and sitting at work risk factors for neck pain? Results of a prospective cohort study. Occup Environ Med, 2001. 58(3): p. 200-7.
  7. Kaliniene, G., et al., Associations between neck musculoskeletal complaints and work related factors among public service computer workers in Kaunas. Int J Occup Med Environ Health, 2013. 26(5): p. 670-81.
  8. Kaliniene, G., et al., Associations between musculoskeletal pain and work-related factors among public service sector computer workers in Kaunas County, Lithuania. BMC Musculoskelet Disord, 2016. 17(1): p. 420.
  9. Crawford, J.O.; Berkovic, D.; Erwin, J.; Copsey, S.M.; Davis, A.; Giagloglou, E.; Yazdani, A.; Hartvigsen, J.; Graveling, R.;Woolf, A. Musculoskeletal health in the workplace. Best Pract. Res. Clin. Rheumatol. 2020, 14, 101558.
  10. Buomprisco, G., Ricci, S., Perri, R. and De Sio, S. (2021). Health and Telework: New Challenges after COVID-19 Pandemic. European Journal of Environment and Public Health, 5(2), em0073.
  11. Robertson MM, Schleifer LM, Huang YH. Examining the macroergonomics and safety factors among teleworkers: development of a conceptual model. Work. 2012; 41 Suppl 1:2611-5.
  12. Vander Elst T, Verhoogen R, Sercu M, Van den Broeck A, Baillien E, Godderis L. Not extent of telecommuting, but job characteristics as proximal predictors of work-related well-being. J Occup Environ Med. 2017;59(10): E180–E6.
  13. Korhonen, T., et al., Work related and individual predictors for incident neck pain among office employees working with video display units. Occup Environ Med, 2003. 60(7): p. 475-82.
  14. Robertson MM, Schleifer LM, Huang YH. Examining the macroergonomics and safety factors among teleworkers: development of a conceptual model. Work. 2012; 41 Suppl 1:2611-5. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2012-1029-2611. PMID: 22317115.

Contributors

Palmer