Businesses need to adapt their OHS to encompass safe remote working

With lockdowns sending office workers home again, and many in other states continuing a hybrid working arrangement, a global risk management provider urges businesses to develop occupational health and safety management (OHS) systems that ensure the working conditions for all employees are monitored and meet international standards, regardless of their location.

SAI Global is a trusted global leader in risk management solutions through its standards, assurance and training offerings in more than 130 countries. SAI Global provides OHS auditing, certification, training and technical solutions to businesses of all sizes in Australia.

SAI Global’s Saeid Nikdel says, “Employers should be aware of their responsibilities and participate in OHS to ensure they take active roles in the company’s OHS performance.” 

“Not only company premises, but also for employees working from anywhere else.”

“If employers have no direct visibility of an employee’s home environment, there must be regular monitoring of their remote workplace and ongoing communication.”

“Communication between the employer and remote employees ensures that their workspace remains safe and the risks associated with remote working are controlled.”

“Details such as employee access to an ergonomic chair, workspaces free from trip hazards, and the equipment they are operating is up to standard, are all critical factors to establish.”    

SAI Global’s remote workplace safety strategy

SAI Global has implemented its own initiatives to ensure employee remote workplaces remain safe. This includes virtual ergonomic assessments, guidance to managers on managing remote teams, and guidance to employees to manage remote work.

SAI Global has run several online campaigns and a series of webinars to support remote workers around mental health, self-care tips to prevent burnout, and financial wellbeing.

Organisations, through operational necessity and pressure from staff are shifting at least part of their workforce to remote work – and the hybrid working model looks set to stay.

In its report on the future of work, in which 120 Australian companies participated, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found the traditional model of ‘office by default, remote by exception’ was no longer applicable as the pandemic exposed Australians to new ways of work.

A working group was formed at SAI Global that includes human resources, workplace health and safety team members and business representatives to develop a hybrid working model.

The survey among employees gauged how and where they like to work when concerns ease.

Over half (55%) of employees preferred to work a combination of office and remote working, 41% prefer full-time remote working, and just 4% prefer to work in the office full-time.

“At SAI Global, we have embraced remote and hybrid working to the extent that most of our employees were working from home before the current lockdowns.”

“Not only do we bring our experience of working with other organisations to bear when helping businesses manage their OHS obligations for remote workers, we also have the knowledge gained from conducting our own internal processes,” said Saeid. 

SAI Global recommends the ISO 45001 standard

How can businesses guarantee a safe working environment for remote employees? 

Saeid says the most important tool is the employer’s OHS management system. Many are lacking such a system. “We find that, while most organisations have an OHS policy and OHS procedures, many do not have the crucial management system that links both.” 

“Unlike an OHS policy, which is simply the framework for an organisation’s OHS commitments, the management system comprises the business processes and documentation.”

“This includes policies, objectives, procedures, and governances that control factors impacting the health and safety of workers to keep them healthy. Procedures can then be developed.”

“We also see many organisations with a management system that conforms to an outdated OHS standard. We recommend compliance with the ISO 45001 international standard, which integrates workplace health and safety into the whole organisation and ensures the commitment of the company leaders as well as the participation of workers.”

“The ISO 45001 standard ensures organisations meet State and Federal workplace laws, and minimise liability risks, as it is an effective standard for minimising risks and hazards.”

Under the ISO 45001 international standard for occupational health and safety, it is not just an employee’s workstation, equipment and vicinity that employers must oversee and manage.

There are also a range of other factors necessary to comply with this standard.

These include the management of an employee’s workload and work hours, how the work is performed, as well as human factors such as removal of anything that might lead to harassment and bullying, good leadership, and the organisational culture.

A management system is designed to be integrated into an organisation’s operations.

As such, compliance with ISO 45001 will also consider actual or proposed changes in the organisation’s operations, processes and activities.

Situations occurring in the vicinity of the workplace caused by work-related activities under the control of the organisation is also important, and a good OHS management system will consider past relevant incidents and emergencies inside, or external to, the company.

“There is a range of factors for employers to consider when expanding their OHS management framework to remote workers, but when businesses engage SAI Global, we help them identify opportunities to meet the requirements in the ISO 45001 OHS standard,” said Saeid.

“By establishing, implementing and maintaining processes for hazard identification that is ongoing and proactive, such as regular checklist updates, or face-to-face catch ups, employers can not only minimise health and safety risks for workers, but also leave themselves less exposed to personal liability claims for incidents that occur in remote workplaces.”

SAI Global shares tips for businesses to ensure employee safety when working remotely.

Ensure employees have access to an ergonomic chair 

Check that employees have a chair that is solid, stable with adequate back support. A good chair should be able to adjust the seat height and backrest height to support its user.

They should fit armrests under the desk to not restrict the user from getting close to the desk.

Provide guidance on an ergonomic workstation set up

Provide guidance on ergonomic workstations that allow the employee to be able to sit up right with a 90-degree angle at the hips and knees, with their feet flat on the floor or on a footrest.

Shoulders should be relaxed, with arms at a 90 to 95-degree angle at the elbows, and neutral wrists. Workstations should also be set up to prevent repetitive twisting of the neck and back, and there must be sufficient space under the desk.

Ensure equipment is set up and used correctly. 

Where possible, employees should only be using equipment that has been issued by your organisation and has been recently tagged and tested.

When frequently using a laptop, employees should have a detachable keyboard and mouse.

Check that monitors are set up approximately one arm length away from the user, and the top of the monitor is at eye level, to prevent neck strain and discourage slouching.

Monitors should also be positioned to minimise glare from natural and artificial light sources.

Employees moving heavy or awkward items should have trolleys or other mechanisms.

Check the work area has adequate lighting and ventilation

Businesses should ensure an employee’s work area has adequate lighting suited to their work. The lighting needs to be sufficient for visual tasks to be completed without eye strain.

Ensure workstations are well ventilated and there is a sufficient thermal comfort. Ensure room heaters are correctly positioned away from combustible materials such as paper or curtains.

It’s important to also consider noise disturbances that may affect working from home.

Check electrical equipment is safe to use 

Beyond working equipment, employers could ask their employees to check plugs, power sockets, leads and switches are free from damage and safe to use.

Employees should take adequate and regular breaks

Ensure employees take a break every 30 minutes from their keyboards or when undertaking repetitive actions. They should also stand up at least once every hour. Breaks should be taken outside, with some exercise or other physical activity as part of their working day.

Guide managers on managing remote teams

Organisations can help managers to identify communication strategies to ensure regular contact with employees. Scheduling regular meetings or catch ups with staff can help them to maintain ongoing contact with teams and foster positive working relationships.