Labor law

Who ensures that remote workers have a healthy working environment?

Author: Kärolin Rohumäe, legal adviser

During the emergency situation in Estonia, many employers have allowed some or all their employees to work from home. Allowing people to work from home cuts the risk of contracting the virus, but also raises the question of who is responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment for the employee.

The employer is expected to provide a safe working environment and occupational safety for employees. For example, it means that if an accident happens with a remote worker, it counts as an occupational accident and the employer is responsible for it. This responsibility cannot be laid on the employee. However, employers can ease the burden.

Below, I will discuss what kinds of measures the employer can adopt to ensure that its obligations to remote workers are met. Remote work is defined as performance of duties of employment outside the employer’s premises[1]. That doesn’t include only working in a home office but it could also mean working in a foreign country on agreement between parties (other than business trips). The parties to the employment contract must enter into a bilateral agreement in at least a form reproducible in writing either at the start of the employment relationship or during the employment relationship before the remote work starts[2]. In entering into the agreement on remote work, the employer assumes the obligation to provide the remote worker, among other things, with the following important factors:

  • a safe working environment;
  • occupational safety;
  • up-to-datedness with information about work arrangements;
  • sufficient work equipment;
  • data protection and privacy.[3]

The Employment Contracts Act sets forth clearly that the employer is obliged to ensure the work conditions conforming to the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act[4], among other things, the employee’s obligations in the field of occupational health and safety do not release the employer from responsibility. Agreements under which the employer is released from liability are thus in conflict with the law and null and void[5].

Employers have raised the question of how a safe environment can be ensured if the duties of employment are fulfilled in a setting outside the direct supervision of the employer such as at home, library or a cafe[6]. As it is not reasonable or even, in some cases, lawful to expect employers to physically check on the performance of work by remote workers, the employer must do all it can to make sure that the remote worker is aware of the rules of the working environment. For that reason, I recommend that every employer pre-emptively prepare an occupational environment risk analysis that sets forth the principles for performing remote work in the company.

Work environment risk analysis

Before allowing employees to start remote work, an occupational environment risk analysis must be performed.

Risk factors for remote workers may be working at display equipment or in an unnatural position for extended periods of time and changes in vision, headache and lowered work capacity, psychosocial risk factors, including working alone for extended periods and social isolation, overintensive work, working during the evenings and weekends, falling, electric shock and fire risk.

If the employer has performed a risk analysis and determined the main risks, the next step is to apply measures for preventing employee health risks.

Employees most often work remotely on a computer. Here the main risk factor is unnatural sedentary positions, which can lead to musculoskeletal disorders. The correct adjustment of monitors and lighting is also important to prevent visual acuity from declining.[7] To reduce risks, employees should be given instructions as to recommended positions and exercises; what the right lighting is, and how the computer, desk and chair should be positioned. If a remote worker lacks a computer desk or other equipment, the employer must provide it to the employee.

Guidelines for performing remote work

The goal of remote work guidelines is to explain safe work techniques for employees to avoid on-the-job accidents or professional diseases. It is also a good idea for the guidelines to also set forth other conditions for performing remote work. The guidelines must be available for all remote workers and it is recommended for the employee to be asked to confirm it with their signature. The guidelines should cover the following topics:

  • What is remote work?
  • How is remote work agreed between the parties?
  • How will communication and division of labour between co-workers take place?
  • How will working time be accounted for?
  • What are the greatest risks (professional illness, on-the-job accident) in remote work, taking into account the risk analysis conducted by the employer?
  • Psychosocial risk factors, including working alone for extended periods and social isolation, monotonous work etc.
  • Description of suitable workplace (workstation, working on display equipment, adjustment of workstation).
  • Recommended exercises.
  • What work equipment does the employer ensure for the employee and how is it maintained and returned?

Before compiling the guidelines, I recommend reading the framework agreement on remote work prepared by the Estonian Employers Confederation and the Estonian Trade Union Confederation, in which they agree on the recommended principles for performing remote work. 

Employees’ survey

Due to the current emergency situation, many companies have sent all of their employees to work from home. The situation is new for many and employers have not managed to devote attention to all of the nuances. To understand what employees need most to perform remote work (better exchange of information, work equipment etc.), I recommend conducting a survey to elicit feedback on the remote work arrangements. The objective of the survey is to offer all employees the possibility to give feedback on topics related to remote work, identifying the advantages and areas of concern. The survey gives the employer a clear view of what is going well and what could be better.

Although enabling remote work comes with certain risks, employees have a high regard for the possibility of remote work. In matters related to remote work, the experience labour law specialists at Grant Thornton Baltic can help: leading legal adviser Kristel Tiits kristel.tiits@ee.gt.com and legal adviser Lee Laanemäe lee.laanemae@ee.gt.com.

For more about remote work occupational environment and safety, read the article by Grant Thornton Baltic legal adviser Brigitta Jõgi, “Remote work – securely flexible?” .

Nothing in this alert should be construed as expert advice. This alert is a generalized summary. Professional counselling should therefore be sought before any action is undertaken.

[1] Ministry of Social Affairs. Occupational healthcare and safety for remote workers. (2019). P. 3.

[2] Estonian Employers’ Confederation and the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions. Agreement on remote work, point 1.2. (2017). Retrieved: https://www.employers.ee/wp-content/uploads/Kaugtoo_raam-final.pdf.

[3] Estonian Employers’ Confederation and the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions. Agreement on remote work, point 1.3. (2017). Retrieved: https://www.employers.ee/wp-content/uploads/Kaugtoo_raam-final.pdf.

[4]Employment Contracts Act, RT I, 19.03.2019, 94, clause 28 (2) 6).

[5] Ministry of Social Affairs. Occupational healthcare and safety for remote workers. (2019). P. 3.

[6]Intention to prepare draft amendment to the Employment Contracts Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act, p. 8.

[7]Ministry of Social Affairs. Occupational healthcare and safety for remote workers. (2019).