COVID-19 Safe Workplaces: guidance for employers and employees25/01/2021
Currently in the UK people who can work effectively from home are required to do so and should only travel to their workplace if they cannot do their job remotely. These restrictions are expected to continue until at least mid-February with COVID-19 restrictions in the workplace likely to continue for some time beyond that.
We recently discussed whether employers are able to force staff to attend the workplace and what, if any, options there were for employees.
Under the current lockdown rules more people can attend their workplace than during the first lockdown such as dentists, removal firms and estate agents. This poses questions of safety in the workplace for employers and employees.
- If you require employees to attend their place of work how do you ensure that the workplace is COVID secure?
- If you are required to attend your place of work how can you be sure that the correct procedures are being followed and enforced?
For workplaces that remain open in England, employers must “carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment”. The government has set out guidance which employers must follow, such as minimising unnecessary visits to the office, frequent cleaning and ensuring that staff observe social distancing where possible.
The government has released 14 guides which provides advice on working safely across a range of different types of workplaces such as offices, factories or even a fleet of vehicles. If you are unsure what steps you or your employer should be taking these guides are a useful tool. These guides are kept under review and so should be consulted frequently by employers.
There have been concerns that some employers are breaking COVID safety rules. Some employees have said that their complaints are ignored or undermined with people reluctant to speak up over concerns that raising complaints may lead to job losses. The TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said “if the government is upping enforcement, ministers should start with employers who break COVID safety rules”.
If you are an employee or a worker who is concerned about a breach of COVID safety rules in the workplace you may be protected by the law on whistleblowing. This means that you should not be treated unfavourably or lose your job as a result of ‘blowing the whistle’. The report you make should be a specific disclosure of information about the breach and it must be made in the public interest. For further guidance you should review your internal policies or call the charity Protect.
If you are an employer, you should ensure that your internal whistleblowing policy is up to date and that you are familiar with what you should do if an employee or worker comes to you with a concern. As explained above an employer should not treat someone less favourably as a result of that person raising a concern.
The Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) is the Government agency responsible for the regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare. They conduct spot checks of employers and respond to complaints regarding any health and safety matters. They have the power to issue enforcement action against any company who are found to be in breach of regulations.
Between 6 and 14 January 2021, the HSE received 3,934 complaints relating to coronavirus and took enforcement action against companies in 81 cases. Since the beginning of the pandemic the HSE has conducted 33,000 site visits and are continuing to scale up their checks on employers. They have introduced telephone spot checks as well as incorporating COVID safety checks into their normal role when visiting workplaces.
Since the beginning of the current lockdown, it is thought that the HSE have only issued verbal or written warnings regarding breaches of COVID safety regulations however, they also have the power to stop working practices and can bring a prosecution if a business fails to comply with rules and guidance.
Employers are advised to conduct regular risk assessments and take all necessary steps to ensure that workplaces are COVID secure. The government guidance should be frequently reviewed and internal practices amended as and when necessary. Any concerns raised by employees or workers should be considered under a whistleblowing policy and the appropriate steps taken to deal with any issues raised.
Laura Tennet is a solicitor in Mincoffs Solicitors’ expert employment department, if you have any concerns about whistleblowing or COVID-19 in the workplace please contact us for further advice on 0191 281 6151 or fill out the form below.