Despite current lockdown rules in the UK stating that people should ‘work from home wherever possible’ and that employers should ‘take every step possible’ to achieve this, there have been numerous reports in the media recently about people feeling they are being asked to attend the workplace unnecessarily or unsafely.
Indeed, the Health and Safety Executive received nearly 4,000 complaints relating to COVID-19 between 6 and 14 January 2021, although it only took enforcement action in 81 of those cases. However, those figures do not take into account those who have not reported concerns, for fear of losing their job.
What are the current rules?
At the time of writing, the guidance is that those who can work effectively from home should do so. They should only travel to their workplace if they cannot ‘reasonably’ do their job remotely.
For those workplaces that remain open, there are strict rules they need to follow. These include:
- Carrying out an appropriate Covid-19 risk assessment
- Minimising unnecessary visits to the office
- Frequent cleaning of workspaces
- Observing 2m social distancing
- Extra handwashing facilities
- Setting up one way systems
- Collecting employees and visitor information for track and trace purposes
There is also more detailed guidance in place for factories plants and warehouses, offices and contact centres and construction and outdoor work.
What to do if issues arise
Employers need to think very carefully about asking staff to come into the workplace at this time as the consequences of doing so without just reason can be severe. There are a number of categories of employees where it may be inappropriate for them to attend. For example, those who are extremely vulnerable themselves or have loved ones for whom they need to shield. Without consideration of these issues and potential solutions, such as offering furlough flexi or full time leave or at least reasonable adjustments, employers may find themselves facing discrimination claims.
Additionally, if an employee reasonably believes that they are in serious and imminent danger at work they are entitled to either leave or refrain from entering their place of work. If these individuals suffer detriment or are dismissed as a result of exercising this right, they can lodge a claim which may result in a finding of automatic unfair dismissal.
Even for those businesses where it is genuinely not possible for employees to work from home, they still need to act with caution. As we have touched upon above, employers need to ensure that any return to work is carefully planned with reasonable steps being taken to reduce any risks at work. Further, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme remains open and may be a useful tool to deal with those employees who are shielding or are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.