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In 2020, homeworking changed from being an elusive benefit for a handful of usually senior workers, to becoming the new normal standard practice for many more jobs. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in February 2022, 84% of workers who had to work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic said they planned to carry out a mix of working at home and in their place of work in the future. Whilst offering many advantages, there are challenges of working from home, and these need to be tackled by both employers and employees for greater effectiveness and safety.
Initially, the super-fast change from workplace working to homeworking at the start of the pandemic resulted in quick improvisation on the part of both employers and employees. However, as the temporary solution to the uncertain situation has become a more permanent change to ways of working, improvisation now needs to change to standardised practices to overcome any challenges.
Understanding the challenges remote employees face is necessary for employers to work towards resolving potential issues. Careful consideration needs to go into individual solutions. As there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, much will depend on distinguishing the type of work being undertaken, the individual needs of the workforce and the variety of work equipment being used by homeworkers.
Included in these challenges is that of safe working. So should employers now be thinking about including home electrical appliances used by employees in the course of their work in their annual PAT testing regimes? As around 1,000 workplace accidents involving burns or electric shock are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) each year, there is a very real need for employers to ensure that the electrical equipment being used by employees working from home is safe and maintained effectively.
What is PAT testing?
PAT stands for portable appliance testing and is the term used to describe the routine examination and inspection of electrical appliances and equipment, to ensure that they are safe to use. The purpose of PAT testing is to prevent electrical accidents in the workplace and in other environments where employees and/or members of the public may be at risk of being harmed.
By basic definition, any portable electrical appliance or equipment needs to be tested. Essentially if the equipment uses a flexible wire or cable to connect to a power supply it qualifies as a portable appliance and needs to be checked. This includes anything from extension leads to a printer. Wireless appliances such as mobile phones do not require a portable appliance test; however, their battery chargers that plug into the wall in order to charge the equipment do.
What are the legal requirements for PAT testing?
The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 require that any electrical equipment that has the potential to cause injury is maintained in a safe condition. However, the regulations do not specify what needs to be done, by whom or how frequently; they don’t make inspection or testing of electrical appliances a legal requirement, nor do they make it a legal requirement to undertake this annually.
Section 2 (5) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) refers to every employer being required to, “ensure that all work equipment is maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order, and in good repair”. One of the most effective ways for businesses to prove that they have safely maintained electrical equipment is by certifying that their electrical appliances are PAT tested. This has become a standard way for businesses to meet this legal obligation and prove that they have done so. When employees are working from home, employers still have a duty of care towards their employees. This means that if an employer PAT tests electrical equipment on their work premises, they should then extend this to their homeworkers too.
Health and safety duties and responsibilities are also set out for businesses in:
How often is PAT testing recommended for homeworkers?
The frequency of electrical appliance checking depends greatly upon use regularity and environment, and it is up to the employer to choose a responsible testing schedule. However, with the increase in electrical equipment in employees’ homes, employees will likely need to use more extension leads and use sockets which may be overloaded with other family members’ devices, causing electrical hazards. This then increases the risk of overheating and can lead to electrical shocks or potential fire. It is the employer’s responsibility to keep employees safe during work, whether they are working from home or in the workplace.
Best practice guidance would be to keep a schedule of all appliances issued to all employees, including those working from home, and ensure that at least bi-annual visual inspections are undertaken, along with a mechanism for defects to be reported back. Employers might create a visual inspection checklist for employees to complete on a regular basis, so that they have a record that these visual inspections have been completed.
Employees working from home will need to be trained and/or provided with sufficient information to be able to carry out the visual inspections. To carry out a visual inspection, employees don’t need to be an electrician, but they do need to know what to look for and they must also have sufficient knowledge to avoid danger to themselves and others.
Potentially dangerous equipment which is used daily in high-risk environments, such as power tools, will need to be checked more frequently than low-use and low-risk devices, for example a printer. The guidance on the frequency of tests and inspection for larger items such as printers and screens suggests a formal visual inspection every two to four years. Where items have an earth, a periodic test is recommended every five years. The reality is that the majority of these items will have been replaced within the timescale recommended for PAT inspection or testing.
What are the dangers and risks of working from home?
Employers should provide all remote working employees with guidance and training on how to carry out a risk assessment in their own working space at home. By ensuring that homeworkers carry out a homeworker’s risk assessment, employers will be able to identify and then deal with any health and safety risks as far as is “reasonably practicable”.
A homeworking risk assessment should check whether the proposed homeworker’s place of work is suitable. Assessing risk is just one part of the overall process used to control risks in the workplace.
The minimum that a homeworker must do is to:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in their home (hazards).
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk).
- Take action to eliminate the hazard, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk.
Generally, work carried out at home is going to be low-risk, office-type work so any risk assessment will consider:
The homeworking environment
A homeworker risk assessment must assess the suitability of the workspace. There should be enough space for work to be carried out comfortably. Often spaces used for homework such as spare bedrooms or space in the living area, are not suitable because of poor lighting or inadequate ventilation, so an assessment should also include ventilation, lighting and temperature. Assessing the workspace should also include removing trip hazards such as trailing leads.
Display Screen Equipment (DSE)
For any regular DSE user, the workstation must be assessed. A legally compliant workstation including a suitable chair is a must. Additional equipment such as a monitor stand or footrest may be necessary and the need for these identified by the risk assessment. Training staff to carry out their own DSE assessment is the easiest way to ensure an employer meets legal guidelines to provide a safe work area. Self-assessment is also a great solution for mobile workers working in different locations. If concerns are raised on completion, then an additional DSE assessment with a trained competent assessor may be in order.
Supplying and maintaining DSE and other electrical equipment
Of the work equipment used at home, employers are only responsible for equipment that they supply; however, they should make employees aware of safety issues if they are using their own equipment for work purposes. If the employer’s equipment is used, for example a computer with internet access, the employer will have to consider what systems need to be put in place to monitor its use, including privacy and security measures. Though it isn’t possible to be wholly responsible for electrical equipment in an employee’s home, any equipment supplied by the employer does need to be inspected and maintained. The HSE has published guidance on electrical safety in offices.
Where employees are mobile and expected to carry equipment to different locations, for example between the workplace and home, there is a risk of manual handling injury. Frequent laptop users should also minimise the time they spend using the laptop and ensure that they take regular breaks.
Other practical ways to reduce any manual handling risk could include providing:
- Smaller and lightweight equipment.
- Backpack style laptop cases or wheeled cases.
- Detachable small keyboard.
- Manual handling training.
A homeworker risk assessment should check that flammable materials such as paper, and ignition sources such as cigarettes, are carefully controlled. Anyone working from home also needs to have a working and regularly checked fire alarm/smoke detector and a fire escape plan in place.
If working from home is low risk, such as desk-based work, homeworkers do not require any first aid equipment beyond normal domestic needs.
Stress and mental wellbeing
Employers must ensure mental health is a priority for all workers, but there is an added concern for employees working from home. Forging close bonds with co-workers is beneficial to mental health and employees need to be made aware that homeworking can lead to limited social contact resulting in a feeling of isolation and even depression. It is important for employers to combat this by taking steps to ensure remote workers feel part of a team.
Practical ways employers can achieve this could include:
- Having regular meetings with management whether face to face or via online platforms.
- Requesting that homeworkers spend at least one day in the office a week or month.
- Building a network of lone workers and with other remote workers.
- Providing access to helplines and advice.
- Holding online meetings with other employees.
- Sending newsletters/work updates.
- Ensuring that homeworkers are being included in social occasions.
Achieving a sensible work/life balance
This is also essential for positive mental health and wellbeing. Being endlessly connected to work blurs the boundaries between work life and personal life, and this can make it difficult to switch off and relax. This in turn can lead to people working longer hours than they ordinarily would in a traditional workplace setting. Employers should give employees working from home some guidance on maintaining a personal/home life separate from work. Some simple solutions could be using a dedicated phone just for business use which can then be turned off at the end of a working day. Task management and time management training can also be useful in equipping people with the skills needed to effectively manage their time.
When homeworkers have completed a thorough risk assessment and submitted it to their employer, the employer has a duty of care to ensure that regular monitoring is in place to be sure the identified potential risks are being controlled adequately.
Working alone, as homeworkers/remote workers often do, presents further challenges concerning personal safety and mental health. There should be measures in place should anyone working alone have an accident, become unwell or be in a position of any danger. Precautions such as a checking-in system can help to ensure any risk is minimised and emergencies rapidly identified.
PAT testing for homeworkers
As well as the visual inspections carried out by employees on their electrical equipment, specialist testing procedures may be needed periodically to ensure the appliances are in safe working order. This testing should be carried out by a professional electrician or fully trained PAT tester, and will generally involve the use of specialist equipment.
The tests depend on the equipment being checked, but can include:
- Insulation resistance test.
- Earth continuity test.
- Earth resistance test.
- Polarity check.
- Applied current test.
There are two ways of carrying out PAT testing for homeworkers. An employer can arrange for a PAT tester to visit the employee at home or the employer can ask the employee to bring their equipment in for testing when they next come into work premises. Once completed, labelling the electrical appliances with their test dates is a good idea to provide a schedule reminder and proof of testing.
Who is responsible for PAT testing for homeworkers?
Even though there is no legal requirement for employers to regularly check the safety of the electrical equipment they supply, they have the same duty of care whether an employee is at home or in the office. The legislation in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 makes no mention of where the employee is based, whilst the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 say that “employers are responsible for the health and safety of homeworkers, as far as is reasonably practicable”. So, employers still need to make sure that their employees are working safely, regardless of where they are based.
It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that remote working employees are adequately trained on remote working fire and electrical safety including how to carry out PAT testing visual inspections, and that they are clear on the safety arrangements that the employer has put in place and what is required of them and others.
It is the employees’ responsibility to comply with whatever safety arrangements the employer has put in place for remote working, and to take whatever actions are required to ensure that their working environment is safe, not only for themselves but also for anyone else in the household.
How can homeworkers check equipment’s electrical safety?
The HSE recommends that all employees using any electrical equipment carry out a user check with the equipment disconnected before use.
Employees should look for:
- Damage to the lead including fraying, cuts or heavy scuffing.
- Damage to the plug, such as to the cover or bent pins.
- Tape applied to the lead to join leads together.
- Coloured wires visible where the lead joins the plug – this may mean that the cable is not being gripped where it enters the plug.
- Damage to the outer cover of the equipment itself, including loose parts or screws.
- Signs of overheating, such as burn marks or staining on the plug, lead or piece of equipment.
- Equipment that has been used or stored in unsuitable conditions, such as wet or dusty environments or where water spills are possible.
- Cables trapped under furniture or in floor boxes.
- Storage of paper – is any paperwork stored next to electrical equipment that could cause a fire?
As part of the visual inspection, the employee should consider whether:
- The electrical equipment is being used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
- The equipment is suitable for the job.
- There has been any change of circumstances.
What are the benefits of PAT testing?
There are several benefits of regular PAT testing, the most significant of which is the reduction in the likelihood of an electrical incident or accident occurring. Regular PAT testing will help employers comply with a number of UK work safety regulations including the Electricity at Work Regulations and the Health & Safety at Work Act. Although maintaining the safety of employees should be an employer’s first priority, they will also want to make sure that the business complies with a long list of regulations that can expose them to legal action should they not comply.
With regular PAT inspections and testing, the risk of electrical appliances falling into disrepair and becoming hazardous is greatly reduced. Consequently, any need for maintenance should be identified and carried out before problems get too serious, preventing the need for costly, large-scale repairs or complete replacements further down the line.
Another advantage of having regular, scheduled PAT testing is that it is appreciated by insurance companies. Homeworkers will need to inform their own home insurers that they are working from home on a regular basis, as it may increase risk factors; however, being able to inform them that any electrical equipment used in relation to the insured person’s work is regularly PAT tested will help to minimise the risks, and this should be reflected in the insurance premiums.
As homeworking becomes more and more commonplace, feelings around the practice are mixed. Some people are enjoying the flexibility that it offers, happy that the previous, sometimes long commute, has been reduced to often just minutes. However, for others, working from home means never switching off, and the distinction between work and home life has become blurred, with their work/life balance becoming increasingly unequal as they log on earlier and log off later.
For employers, implementing working from home or hybrid working practices presents its own challenges. Health and safety of employees being amongst them. The key is to extend the good practices employed in providing a healthy and safe working environment in the workplace to encompass those working from home and ensure that the same health and safety risk assessments are applied, concerns addressed, and that there are clear safety arrangements in place for employees working from home, and that includes PAT testing.