Agile Working Implications For
Health & Safety And Risk Management
Introduction A significant body of work has been produced on agile working, it’s benefits and various approaches to implementing it in organisations. However, few of the studies or papers to date have given due consideration to the health and safety implications of agile working; in particular the application of DSE regulations and the management of DSE related risks and issues in agile workforces.
Little consideration in agile working literature or case studies has been given to employer responsibilities in relation to muscular-skeletal conditions, injuries and claims and the fulfilment of their duty of care to employees for the relationship between their working practices, environment and tools and their health, safety and wellbeing.
This paper’s primary purpose is to give consideration to the relationship between agile working practices and safety management – particularly management of DSE related risks and issues in workforces.
That said, to the extent that it needs to in order to explore this relationship, the paper does consider some definitions of agile working, looks at how it’s being applied and how objectives for its application are being set and benefits to businesses and employees are being realised.
The development of the Flexible and agile working practices
There is some debate as to whether agile working is the same as “flexible working” or any other terms encompassed by the phrase “new ways of working”. The idea of flexible working certainly pre-dates some of the thinking on agile working and has primarily focussed on the evolution of office space, home offices, mobile offices and working technologies to enable this flexible working.
There are some that would argue that flexible working and agile working are interchangeable terms but with the advent of new technologies, workplace re-design and in particular the development of agile approaches to project delivery, programme management and team working, there is a notable distinction.
Development of flexible working practices has really considered how to develop alternative patterns of work around four working environments:
- Fixed office – a typical work place where every person is allocated a desk.
- Flexible office – a work place which embraces a range of alternative work place setting, which may include unassigned workstations, hot desks, informal lounge areas and collaborative meeting spaces.
- Mobile office – The ability to work anywhere whilst on the move whilst maintaining access to email and company servers and databases.
- Home office – the ability to work remotely from a fixed home location.
Flexible working has also introduced a time dimension into the workplace; with flexibility in working hours, working patterns and, to a significant degree, a shift away from solely monitoring time worked in the workplace with consideration given to outputs and performance.
Additionally, flexible working requires employers and employees to consider the tension between benefits to work life balance and the detrimental effects of work isolation that can lead to stress. Whilst there is a lot of commonality between agile working and flexible working, there are some important distinctions. The principle of agile working incorporates aspects of time and place flexibility, but also involves doing work differently.
Agile working builds on the focus on performance and outcomes and also considers broader organisational development in relation to job scope and even how capacity and labour is sourced (i.e. the use of a mix of vendors, individual contractors and direct employees).
The Agile Future Forum, whose aim is to provide leadership and practical support to disseminate agile working practices, sets out these agile working practices across the 4 dimensions of:
- Time (when do people work?)
- Location (where do people work?)
- Role (what do people do?)
- Source (who carries out work?)
The time and location dimensions of agile working clearly align with approaches to flexible working, however agile working adds considerations of role and activities and type of worker.
Implications For Health And Safety Management
In terms of considering the implications of agile working on health and safety management all 4 dimensions have a bearing as follows:
Flexible working patterns have extended the usual operational hours of businesses with subsequent implications for the timeframes in which health and safety management capacity, availability, response and systems need to operate. Another aspect of time relevant to health and safety management and particularly employee wellbeing is that of the extent to which flexible working patterns contribute to stress and impair work-life balance. The role of technology in making workplace communication and work accessible 24x7 is also a significant factor to consider.
The advent of fixed offices, flexible offices, mobile offices and home offices has both extended the (real and virtual) real estate over which a company has to manage health and safety and perhaps more significantly, the combined changes in office environments and the use of technology in and outside of the workplace have significant impacts for health and safety risk management. The Health and Safety At Work Act notes clearly that HSE responsibility extends to every place in which employees work.
Agile working seeks to maintain a level of variety and dynamism to work roles which in many ways positively impacts employee wellbeing. However, for some employees, too much variety or the need for multi-tasking and multi-skilling places a burden of stress and pressure that can negatively impact employee health and wellbeing.
The increased use of both vendors and individual contractors also has implications for health and safety management. Vendor management is often one of the areas which exposes organisations to health and safety risks and risks of prosecution under corporate manslaughter legislation. The often held misassumption is that as tasks and responsibilities are contracted out, responsibility for Health and Safety sits with the vendor.
Whilst vendors do have a responsibility for health and safety management, the ultimate responsibility remains with the organisation; in fact their responsibility is to risk assess, warrant, audit and ensure the health and safety arrangements of their vendors and their sub-contractors. Similarly, organisations retain a duty of care to individual contractors and temporary employees that is to a large degree similar to that they owe their own employees.
However, time and cost constraints and differing levels of engagement and worker-commitment with contracted labour can often make the fulfilment of that duty of care and the engaging, induction and training of contracted labour to ensure they are appropriately trained and equipped for their work more difficult.
Whilst all four of these dimensions of agile working have implications for health and safety management, it is one in particular, that of location, which poses the biggest challenge to companies, particularly those employing large numbers of computer based workers, as they introduce agile working practices.
The location dimension is requiring organisations to consider how they extend HSE management to distributed workplaces, fulfil their responsibilities to provide training and equipment to multi-located employees and consider how to assess, audit and warrant work practices from a HSE perspective across distributed workforces.
THE CHANGING WORKPLACE
Although underpinned by a drive to make cost savings in real-estate, the changing office environment has both been enabled by and demanded new technologies and changing workstations. This inter-relationship between technology, workstations and employees presents an ergonomic challenge.
The advent of flexible offices has established unassigned workstations, hot desks and informal lounge areas; all a far cry from the recognised good practice of an adjustable workstation with a properly supporting chair, good visibility and appropriate equipment.The concept of mobile offices takes this a stage further; planes, trains and cars offer little by way of ergonomically sound workspaces.
Whilst home offices have the potential to offer a static workstation, there is no guarantee that this is the case with home-workers sometimes being found to be sat at dining tables, on sofas or in bed whilst working.
Technology development has both been driven by and has itself driven changes in working patterns, office environments and the work habits of individuals and companies. Several technologies in particular interface with the modern workplace and are a key part of agile working:
LaptopsAlthough not a new phenomenon; laptops are increasingly becoming the norm for office workers, particularly those in flexible offices. Without enhancements and additional equipment, laptops offer a poorer ergonomic solution than a desktop computer with separate screen, keyboard and mouse.
Fortunately, a range of tools (laptop risers, mice, keyboards, separate screens) are available to supplement laptop use. However, these tools can be costly, they limit some of the mobility benefits of laptop computers, they require appropriate configuration to be effective in reducing muscular-skeletal injuries and incidents and they take time to set up.
Tablets and smart phonesA far more recent technological change to the office environment and to the working practices of all sorts of employees has been the widespread adoption of tablets and smart phones. These devices present a range of ergonomic challenges. They can be “always on” causing blurring of the boundaries of work time or affecting the taking of genuine breaks in work activity or paying attention to a screen. Use of devices (both standing and sitting) often takes place in quite hunched postures with lots of repetitive motion of fingers, hands, wrists, arms, necks and eyes.
These technologies are not health and safety risks in themselves, rather the way that they can be and are used presents risks of muscular-skeletal injuries and conditions. Such technologies need to be considered in in relation to Workstation risk training, communication and assessment with users made aware of the risks and issues in their use and provided with guidance on good practice and sensible usage and clear signposting to support in the event of experiencing pain or discomfort.
Another important consideration for employers is the extent to which new (young employees in particular) will have already spent a life time using such devices often in ergonomically poor situations. These employees are potentially embarking on employment with (identified and unidentified) muscular-skeletal conditions and injuries that will affect and be affected by they're working environment and the type of training and support that they are given by their employer. When this wave of younger employees is integrated into work environments with older working populations as retirement ages move out towards 70 years of age; the challenge of maintaining and managing workplace health and safety and employee wellbeing becomes increasingly complex.
DSE Regulations And Attitudes To
Increasingly, DSE regulations are being left to employers to apply under the banner of their overall duty of care to employees.
With DSE regulations being less directly enforced by local authorities; the onus seems to be shifting towards employers being presented with choices around how they demonstrate and fulfil their duty of care to employees and how they prevent and mitigate claims through proactive management of risks and by demonstrating fulfilment of their responsibilities.
Muscular-skeletal injuries and incidents arising from poorly managed work environments can still result in significant personal injury claims being made against organisations with the subsequent damage to reputation, brand and employee engagement exacerbating the obvious costs of claims and increased insurance premiums.
Effective employee training & communication and effective identification and management of DSE related risk remains an important value protection and value adding operational and health and safety strategy for organisations.
Within the wider legislative landscape, there is a growing emphasis on personal responsibility when it comes to managing risk with the idea that organisations should hand-hold competent intelligent individuals being increasingly discounted societally and in the courts.
CONCLUSION - "A PERFECT STORM"
EDP believe that “perfect storm” conditions exist to bring about radical shifts in the ways that organisations manage Health and Safety within office and agile working environments.
Changing approaches to the enforcement of DSE regulations combined with the importance of personal responsibility presents a perfect opportunity for organisations to shift the locus of responsibility to employees provided that they do so in a way that appropriately fulfils their duty of care by establishing appropriate levels of training and communication and ensuring that for those employees who do identify with issues or concerns, the right levels of support, treatment and issue management are provided in a way that aligns with claims mitigation best practice.
One area which requires additional consideration is that of heavily unionised workforces where the need to engage union representatives in training design, co-developing communications, agreeing signposts and sharing ownership of support, treatment and issue management solutions.
EDP work with a number of clients who already employ flexible workforces and operate agile working practices. Clients include Microsoft, Accenture and Universal Music Group. The risk management solutions that EDP deploy for them have ensured high levels of employee engagement and responsibility in workstation configuration and DSE management, low claims, lower insurance premiums and reductions in equipment and occupational health costs. These risk management solutions are built on a number of core tenets:
Developing simple, clear, common sense training that provides a basic understanding of the principles and good practices of posture, workplace ergonomics and use of laptops, tablets and computers. Training that sets out “common sense” responsibilities for employee, clearly sets out the employers responsibilities and commitments and signposts to a support infrastructure should employees have any concerns, pains or issues. Training packages are making use of online e-learning systems and/or short and engaging videos.
Following up on training by engaging employees in the subject; maintaining a regular flow of messaging and availability of information through briefings, intranets, wellbeing events and use of other company communications.
Providing a short question set that allows employees with issues to identify and highlight them and those with no issues to quickly confirm that and demonstrate their understanding of their responsibilities.
Intelligent processing of assessment responses to ensure those people with issues are responded to. Expert assessment Providing follow up assessments by experts for those individuals who identify with issues and potential risks. Leveraging remote conferencing tools and telephony to provide a “face to face” service to distributed workforces.
Ensuring that employees know what support is available and how they can access it.
Making equipment available that supports the individual need and aligns with the configuration of the workplace and technologies (lightweight laptops, laptop stands, tablet keyboards etc.).
Ensuring the targeted allocation of expertise in risk assessment, case handling and claims mitigation for the cases that need it.