Home and hybrid working – is a DSE epidemic coming?


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With workplaces closed in lockdown to all but ‘essential workers’ the Covid-19 pandemic saw millions of people forced to work from home in 2020 and 2021, leading to businesses everywhere having to make money available for their employees to kit themselves out with home offices.

It was a boon for businesses like Ikea, Amazon and other online stockists of cheap office furniture like desks, chairs and pedestal drawers.

Despite the worst of the pandemic being behind us, there hasn’t been a rush back to working from offices. Instead, permanent work-from-home (WFH) and hybrid working arrangements have emerged that see staff spending all or at least some of their time working from home and the rest in the office.

Whilst much has been said about the relative pros and cons of the WFH and hybrid models, one thing that’s generally missing from the debate is the matter of suitable and sufficient Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessments and, more specifically, whether the home workstations people are using are really fit for purpose.

Sitting comfortably?
The Coggin Group in Lancashire repairs, repurposes and recycles office furniture. It works with everything from SMEs to large blue-chip clients that not only appreciate the savings potential of not buying brand new, but also the sustainability advantages.

According to Sam Coggin that runs the firm, in the last couple of years it’s come across lots of businesses that might normally spend four figure sums on office workstations for their staff giving them bursaries of just £200 to buy furniture for a home office set up.

It’s probably going to be a false economy.

Sam told me: “You’ve basically got people spending up to eight hours a day sat in chairs that are really designed for occasional use in the home offices of the past, working at desks that aren’t ergonomically designed either.

“Put simply, these items of office furniture are not intended for the kind of use they’re getting.

“I worry that we’re going to see a raft of claims emerging from employees that develop musculoskeletal disorders as a result of spending too long in office chairs that provide inadequate support, working in uncomfortable and twisted positions at the wrong kinds of desks.”

With this in mind, I asked Stuart Wright at CUBE HR, also based in Lancashire, about the rules around DSE assessments and the potential legal ramifications for businesses that fail to ensure their WFH and hybrid employees have the right equipment.

He said: “Whether employees are working in the office, at home or have a hybrid arrangement, it is essential that they have the right equipment and set-up. Employers would ensure that they give an employee a suitable workstation and equipment, and would conduct a DSE assessment if an employee was office based, it is no different with someone who is working from home.

“The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) are very clear in the steps that employers must take: ‘If workers use display screen equipment daily, as part of their normal work, continuously for an hour or more, employers must do a workstation assessment’. At CUBE HR we also advocate that employers go a step further than the DSE assessment and have in place a working from home assessment that looks at additional risks. This ensures that employers are going above and beyond their statutory obligations and demonstrates real care for employees.

“If an employer chooses not to conduct DSE assessments then they are leaving themselves wide open to future claims from employees who have developed conditions or indeed had accidents as a result of using equipment which is simply not fit for purpose. We have heard numerous horror stories of people who have been working on patio furniture or slouching over a laptop on their sofa all day for over two years, which is clearly unacceptable.

“Having to pay out on a claim could be hugely damaging, particularly at a time when many businesses are struggling to cope with increasing costs. The potential financial loses to a business which result from a successful claim against them could be fatal. Ultimately, employers have a duty of care to ensure that their staff work in safe and healthy environment, it’s a non-negotiable”.

The reputational costs of spending less
The Coggin Group sells refurbished, high-quality ergonomic office chairs from £100 to £600 and desks from £80 to £150 that would typically sell brand new for in some cases four times that amount. Yes, this is admittedly still much more than the £200 people have been given to spend on their home office furniture, but compared to the potential costs of personal injury claims that businesses could suffer, it’s immediately obvious that it makes commercial sense to spend the extra – especially when you consider that there a law firms out there that specialise in identifying issues like this and whipping people up into joining class action legal claims on a no-win, no-fee basis.

But there’s another angle here that businesses should be mindful of; the potential for negative reputational impacts.

Imagine your business sees multiple WFH or hybrid employees bringing claims for neck and back injuries. Whether successful or not, if the details get into the public domain (and by ‘if’, I mean ‘when’), what kind of impression is that likely to create? Will people think of you as a caring employer or a Dickensian-villain?

It’s more likely than not to be the latter, denting your employer brand and making it even harder to recruit than it already is. This highlights something all businesses should really do when assessing the health and safety risks of their operations: consider the reputational risks too, and how these can be minimised and mitigated.

If you identify a medium-to-high risk of someone being injured in the workplace, there’s an equivalent risk that the details will become public, thrusting your business into the spotlight and causing people to question your ethics and integrity.

That’s the last thing you want. It takes a long time to build a reputation but lasting damage can be caused very quickly. Just ask Gerald Ratner.

If you’ve got WFH and hybrid staff, and if you haven’t already done so, order DSE assessments right away. Then be seen to act on them if they find that your colleagues are using chairs and desks that are not fit for purpose by replacing these items of furniture. And, finally, give some thought to what you’ll say publicly if employees start to come forward with injury claims dating back to 2020 so that you’re ready to defend your reputation if necessary.

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