COVID-19: Health and Safety when Returning to Work

Insights 15.05.2020 Author: Andreja Okamgba

As some workplaces are gradually being allowed to reopen, the attention over the next few months will turn to ensuring that work environments comply with Government guidelines and employers address all health and safety concerns so that employees can work in a danger free workplace.

As we await further details of the Government’s health and safety guidance for different sectors, different types of workplaces and how this will be applied in practice, we have had a brief look at the legislation protecting employees in this area.

The legal position (contained within sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996) has not changed and employers are obliged under the law to provide employees with a safe place of work. This is comforting news for employees who may understandably approach returning to work with a level of caution and perhaps concern for their own health and safety.

The legislation protects employees from being subjected to detriment or dismissed on grounds that:

  • In circumstances of danger that the employee reasonably believes to be serious and imminent which they could not reasonably be expected to have averted, they left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to their place of work or any dangerous part of their place of work.
  • In circumstances of danger that the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent, they took (or proposed to take) appropriate steps to protect themselves or other persons in danger.

Complying with these requirements is normally a very routine job, especially for office-based employees, but Covid-19 presents a unique challenge. The Government is producing a series of documents outlining all the measures employers should implement depending on the type of workplace. This should be a starting point, but changes should not stop there. Consulting with your employees to understand their specific concerns and how you might be able to address those will be vital for them feeling safe when returning to work.

Importantly, the basis of any claim against the employer based on the legal protections outlined above, will be the employee’s perception of any danger and risk. It will therefore be vitally important for any employer to communicate meticulously with everyone on every measure they are taking to mitigate the risks and implement the relevant guidance on social distancing and protective equipment. If employees are consulted and involved, they are much more likely to accept that everything possible is being done to ensure a safe workplace.

What next?

If you would like to discuss this in more detail, speak to a member of the HR Consultancy team.