Government and legal advice on returning to work (Covid-19 & Health & Safety)

With the government encouraging those sectors that have not been forced to close, to return to work, if they are unable to work from home. What advice have they currently issued to employers and businesses, to keep their staff as safe as possible?

It is obvious that maintaining a two-metre distance from others (social distancing) is not possible in many work environments or situations. In this case businesses are told to consider whether the activity is vital for the operation of the business. If it is vital, then the advice is to wash hands frequently or to use hand sanitiser when facilities to wash your hands are unavailable. Staff should work side by side or back to back. If they must work face to face it should be kept to fifteen minutes or less whenever possible. Teams should be kept to a minimum and should stay the same to limit any spread of the virus.

The advice on social distancing gives some industry specific guidance. For example, a tradesman, cleaner or nanny should not enter a home if they or the occupant is suffering symptoms. It states, ‘you can continue to work, providing that you are well and have no symptoms.’ Using the word ‘well’ is a little strange considering we have been frequently told that symptoms vary, with not everybody showing symptoms, or a person may not show symptoms for up to fourteen days. How are you meant to know if you are well? Good ventilation is advised by opening windows. No work should be carried out in the home of a vulnerable person unless it is an emergency. In this situation face to face contact with the vulnerable person should be avoided. Hand washing, along with respiratory hygiene should be strict.

Areas, objects, and surfaces should be regularly cleaned with standard disinfectant cleaning products, especially if they are touched frequently. Hand sanitiser and tissues should be provided for staff to use. Transfer of materials should be done electronically where possible. Additional pop up hand washing, or sanitising facilities should be made available where possible. Use floor markings to encourage social distancing. Businesses should consider splitting staff into teams that then work alternative days.

Staff should be encouraged to bring their own food. Rest areas can continue to be used if social distancing is maintained. Breaks could be staggered to avoid any crowding, along with the usual hand washing and regular cleaning of all areas.

Other advice is to ensure that employees who are in a vulnerable group to stay at home, along with any staff that have shown symptoms. Staff that have shown symptoms should remain at home for seven days. If a staff member lives with a person that has shown symptoms, then they should also remain at home for seven days. Those that follow the advice to stay at home will be eligible for statutory sick pay from the first day of absence. Medical evidence is not required by law for the first seven days. After this period employers should use discretion when requiring medical evidence, to allow GPs to focus on their patients.

The above advice is from the gov.uk website under guidance for employers and businesses on coronavirus (updated 7 April 2020). If you are returning to work, below is some areas of law that protect you regarding your health and safety.

Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974: Section 2 states, ‘It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.’ With regards to employers and the self-employed, to people other than their employees. Section 3 states, ‘It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.’

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: Regulation 3 states, ‘every employer must make suitable and sufficient risk assessments’ regarding any risks to the health and safety of employees. Risk assessments should also be made for those not in employment if there is a connection with the conduct or undertaking.

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992: Regulation 4 states that ‘every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work’. ‘Every self-employed person shall ensure that he is provided with suitable personal protective equipment where he may be exposed to a risk to his health or safety while at work.’ Concerns have been raised that businesses may now be competing with each other, along with the NHS when acquiring PPE.

Employment Rights Act 1996: Section 44 states that, ‘an employee has the right not to be subjected to any detriment’. If after taking all the appropriate steps your employer has still failed to ensure your health and safety whilst at work. You can then remove yourself from that dangerous situation.

Finally, joining a trade union is always a good idea as you will have the support and assistance of your union, if any health and safety issues arise. The future could be filled with many negligence claims if employers fail to reasonably protect the health and safety of their staff.

By Samuel Killoran who is a Law Student at Solent University

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