From the beginning of August, employers will be able to decide whether their staff can safely return to the office. In an attempt to boost the economy, workers could return to the workplace at the “discretion” of their companies, instead of working from home.
Many businesses have introduced stringent safety measures, including the wearing of face masks, fewer people in offices and keeping desks further apart. Despite this, more than two-fifths of UK workers are anxious about the prospect of returning to the workplace, according to a poll of 1,000 adults by YouGov for the CIPD.
It’s not just the general health risks employees are worried about. Many people are concerned about their commute, the constant changes to their working environment and what their employers are doing to ensure their safety when they return.
But what are your rights if your employer hasn’t done enough to protect you and your colleagues — and what should you do?
“Clearly, in the first instance discuss this with your employer — for example, your line manager — and ascertain why,” says Lee Mills, director of health and safety at the employment law and HR experts Citation.
“Ask to see the Coronavirus Risk Assessment, which they are required to undertake. If they haven’t got one, ask them to undertake one and then discuss the findings.”
Employers have a duty to consult with their employees or their representatives on health and safety matters, he adds.
“If your employer recognises trade unions, you should have appointed health and safety representatives, and where you do not recognise unions but the employer doesn’t want to communicate with the workforce directly, you should have elected safety representatives,” Mills says. “Discuss the matter with them if you feel unable to discuss with your employer directly.”
What should you do if you don’t want to return to the workplace?
If you don’t feel comfortable going back to the office, your employer should consider your case individually and make an effort to understand why. For example, it might be because you have been shielding.
“We would strongly advocate that you commence a discussion with your employer regarding why you do not wish to return and attempt to resolve any issues you have via this method,” Mills says. “Most reasonable employers will work with their employees to ensure they feel safe to return to work and are able to demonstrate they have complied with government guidance on making their workplaces Covid secure.”
Ultimately, the Employment Rights Act gives employees protection against being dismissed or treated detrimentally in circumstances where they have refused to attend work because they have a genuine reason to be concerned about their health.
“However, we would always advise the best course of action is to discuss the situation with your employer to ensure they understand your concerns and to give them the opportunity to address this,” Mills adds.
What should employers be doing to ensure people's safety in the workplace?
Employers should be doing several things to make sure workers are safe when they return to the workplace. Firstly, they should undertake a risk assessment and talk to staff about any concerns — and make sure they have all the information they need.
“Make your workplace Covid secure and implement the control measures from the risk assessment. This concerns social distancing, hygiene and sanitiser and maybe even face coverings or masks,” Mills says.
And make sure vulnerable workers are protected too. “As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect workers from harm. Shielded workers are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus. They cannot return to workplaces before at least 31 July 2020 in Scotland, from 1 August 2020 in England and from 16 August 2020 in Wales when shielding is paused,” Mills adds.
You should also make sure you have a procedure in place for managing employees who have or are suspected of having coronavirus.
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“Other control measures you should have in place are: Good hand hygiene, social distancing, consideration of density of employees and the numbers you can safely bring back into the workplace, as well as keeping surfaces and shared equipment clean.”
You may also want to make use of ‘bubbles’ to keep people together to reduce cross contamination and using physical barriers like perspex screens. “Where your employees wish to wear face coverings — which are not PPE — then you should support them,” Mills says.