The European Commission has said it will review and update EU rules on workplace safety in light of the Covid-19 pandemic to better reflect the fact that millions of people are now working from home.
The Commission said it will look at a range of requirements, from emergency exits to ventilation and the use of workstations and screens. In addition to this, the Commission said it will also produce recommendations regarding mental health at work before the end of 2022.
Even before the pandemic, mental health problems affected about 84 million people in the EU, with stress contributing to around half of all lost working days. However, over the last 18 months almost 40% of workers began working remotely full time, leading to reduced social contact, online meetings and the increased use of IT equipment.
'For many, the concept of a traditional workplace is disappearing fast. While that brings opportunities, it also brings challenges and risks – health, psychological and social,' the Commission's vice president, Valdis Dombrovskis, told a news conference on Monday.
IOSH's head of advice and practice, Duncan Spencer, agreed that traditional workplaces do have certain advantages when it comes to employee health and wellbeing.
'One of the benefits of working in an office is accessibility to advice and the opportunity for managers to observe. These are severely limited when working from home. It is therefore necessary for managers to have a more in-depth and regular dialogue with homeworkers. This will enable them to identify frustrations and issues that can be addressed, as well as employees’ mental states,' Duncan said.
'Dealing with Covid-19 has helped to raise awareness of occupational health diseases and the importance of wellbeing. Many OSH professionals and the organisations they work for are realising that they can and should do more to control these hazards.'
'Organisations will need to update their risk assessments to identify the new risks created by increased home working and to establish and implement appropriate control measures'
Work-related accidents and illnesses cost the EU economy over 3.3% of gross domestic product per year. The Commission said estimates show that for every euro invested in occupational health and safety, the return for the employer is around twice as much thanks to employees requiring less sick leave.
Although the Commission's updates will not apply to the UK, regulatory lawyer Rhian Greaves says it is inevitable that employers and British health and safety professionals will look beyond their borders to see how other countries are approaching the challenge of more extensive home working.
'In my view, the Health and Safety at Work Act is sufficiently wide in scope and application to meet this compliance challenge. The question now will be how the HSE views the shift towards home working and how its guidance will be updated to reflect this new reality,' Rhian said.
'It will be fascinating to see how employers adapt to the very real and practical implications of large remote workforces. Organisations will need to update their risk assessments to identify the new risks created by increased home working and to establish and implement appropriate control measures. This will be challenging given the variety of domestic situations in which employees now work.'
Home worker wellbeing isn’t the only health and safety subject under review. In light of the anticipated digital and green recovery, the European Commission will also specifically update limits on exposure to insulator asbestos, as well as lead and cobalt used in renewable energy technology and battery production.
The Commission said it wanted trade unions and employers' organisations to negotiate an agreement on asbestos and chemical agents that can cause cancer and respiratory problems. If they do not signal a wish to do so, the EU executive will put forward a proposal in 2022.