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November 2, 2005

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National Safety Symposium- Flattened or flexible?

“Either step out of the way, or gather speed and pick up the baton,” was the advice Olu Adeolu had for delegates, in describing the “juggernaut” that is flexible working.

“You can’t avoid it, you’ve got to build up a head of steam, or you could be in trouble,” Lewisham Borough Council’s head of corporate health and safety said.

Many organisations are nervous about embracing flexible working, particularly where the work would be carried out from home. “Many people say that they find their organisation quite resistant to having flexible working policies in place. There’s often a negative feeling towards people who work from home — a view that they have an easy life.”

Despite this, Olu said organisations have to consider any request for flexible work seriously and may have to come up with reasons why a person couldn’t work from home. He added that the government is also supporting organisations that implement policies which create better work-life balance.

However, organisations that are prepared to allow their staff to work from home face a potential minefield: “One of the most obvious areas of risk that the employer faces is the use of computers. One of the main reasons people suffer musculoskeletal disorders is because they don’t adjust their chairs, and you only have to go round the workplace to see people not using them properly. But, in many cases, when they’re working at home the kitchen table passes as the work desk.”

Then there are issues around manual handling, providing first aid, and fire safety plans to ensure the employee can get out of their home in the event of a fire: “And what about the Electricity at Work Regulations? I’d suggest the employer to has the individual’s equipment checked by someone competent before you allow them to work from home.”

Olu also said individual themselves need to be part of the equation: “What if the person is useless with IT? It might be difficult to allow them to work remotely. But you might find that those who struggle to concentrate in the office are more productive at home.”

Although flexible working may be the way of the future, there’s a lot of work still to be done by employers, and safety and health practitioners, before it becomes common-place.

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