From a health, safety and well-being perspective, what are the employer's obligations about managing a return to the workplace?
Government guidance remains that:
For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home wherever possible.
All workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open.
The Prime Minister advised every workplace should be Covid-19 secure and new guidelines are now available to help employers ensure workplaces are as safe as possible. Whilst employers should take account of the on-going guidance from the UK government, employers should also consider the general law, for example by assessing the risks to employees, clients and customers.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are giving different advice about staying at home for longer. Scotland and Wales have also written social distancing requirements into law. In England similar requirements are in guidance from the Government and Public Health England (PHE).
It must be noted that Avison Young recommend employers seek their own legal advice as part of their return to work strategy.
It is sensible that employers consult with their employees about any return into the workplace. This should be part of a broader re-induction process that takes on board any adjustments or on-going support that people may need following lockdown. Employee engagement will help identify support and ensure teams feel more confident about returning. Where relevant employers should also seek union input for any measures.
Employers must undertake risk assessments which will need to be reviewed as government advice changes. You may wish to refer to the Health and Safety Executive website for more information. A risk assessment has a crucial role in ensuring a safe return to the workplace process. The end goal is to adopt appropriate control measures which reduce or remove the risks of contracting Covid-19 when returning to work. The risks around visitors entering the workplace, such as customers should be assessed too as there is also a legal obligation to ensure their health and safety.
Health and safety duties
Employers have a contractual duty to take care of employees’ health and safety and other statutory duties including:
- Implied duty to protect the health and safety, of all employees
- Duty to look after the mental health, as well as physical health, of employees
- Duty to protect members of the public, clients, customers and contractors
- Duty to manage the health and safety risks from the workplace itself including equipment such as hand driers and air conditioning systems which may circulate viruses although there has been little research on this. Other workplace issues include cleanliness and washing facilities
- Information and training (including reminding employees of their responsibilities in meeting health and safety requirements).
Employers’ health and safety duties extend to mental health and well-being as well as physical infection control measures. Risk assessments should cover managing mental health and well-being aspects too. You may wish to refer to the Health and Safety Executive stress risk assessment tools. Employees with new working arrangements in the workplace and working from home can suffer from stress or mental health issues, ensure you maintain contact and look for signs of problems. Employees who have been furloughed should be included. As well as implementing or reviewing policies and procedures and proactively monitoring and keeping in contact with staff, employers should point them to other support that is available. Managers may need fresh training in recognising the symptoms of poor mental health so they can signpost to early intervention and expert support such as occupational health, an employee assistance helpline. If an employer becomes aware that particular employees are struggling with their mental health, they should conduct individual risk assessments for both home and workplace workers.
Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities towards those working from home as for any other workers, including physical mental health.
This webinar and Q&A document reflects our professional opinion of the factors impacting workplace transition in the context of our role as workplace specialists. It does not constitute formal advice and we recommend engagement with specialists, including your own internal or external health and safety advisors, if you are transitioning your workplace to a 'Covid secure' standard. Please also note that the Q&A contains responses to specific questions which therefore may not be appropriate for all types of businesses or workspaces. The spread of COVID-19 and the containment policies being introduced are changing rapidly, and some of the views expressed herein may not reflect the latest opinion of Avison Young. We strongly recommend that you continue to monitor the relevant UK Government advice, and any supplementary local advice. These sources provide regularly updated information on the COVID-19 outbreak: World Health Organization, Government of Canada, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UK Government, Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Case Tracker.