Returning to Work: How Should my Employer be Keeping me Safe?

From 1 August, the government’s advice on working practices has changed.

Companies have more flexibility to decide whether their employees should return to their workplace – but what should your employer do to keep you safe?

Do I have to go back to work?

You will be required to return to work if your employer instructs you to do so, as it is now at their discretion under the new guidelines. Your employer should consult with you about returning to work to consider your views and reach an agreement. Acas advises that employees should be ready to return to work at short notice if asked to do so, but your employer should try to be flexible where possible.

If you do not feel ready to return to work or you’re facing other issues such as arranging childcare, you should speak to your employer as soon as possible to try to reach a solution. If you cannot reach a suitable solution, you may be able to ask for additional time off as holiday or unpaid leave, but your employer does not have to agree to this.

Most importantly, if you refuse to return to work without valid reason, this could result in disciplinary action or even dismissal.

Your employer does, however, have certain legal obligations to make sure that the workplace is safe for employees to return to during the coronavirus pandemic.

What is a COVID secure workplace?

Before asking you to return to work, your employer should carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment to ensure that the workplace is safe for you to return. According to government advice, this includes following Health and Safety Executive guidance, consulting with workers and trade unions and sharing the findings of the risk assessment with workers.

Your workplace should also implement a substantial cleaning, hand-washing and hygiene procedure to ensure staff are protected. This includes providing hand sanitiser around the workplace and regularly cleaning equipment, surfaces and busy areas.

The two-metre social distancing rule should also be adhered to and procedures should be put in place to minimise contact with others. This might include restricting the use of shared workstations, arranging a one-way traffic system through the workplace and using floor tape to help employees keep a two-metre distance.

Where it is not possible for social distancing to be implemented, employers should, among other precautions, use screens or barriers to separate people and stagger arrival and departure times.

Finally, your employer should help people to work from home where possible, by discussing home working arrangements and ensuring you and your colleagues have the right equipment to do your jobs.

Employers should also make sure their staff are regularly included in business-wide communications and ensure that the physical and mental well-being of employees is being looked after.

What are my rights if my workplace isn’t following COVID secure guidelines?

By not implementing and following the COVID secure workplace guidance, your employer is not only putting you and your colleagues at risk, but may also be at breach of health and safety law.

According to Unison, if employees are faced with a dangerous or unsafe working environment, they are protected by law and have the right not to suffer detriment if they leave or refuse to attend their place of work if they believe they are at risk to being exposed to serious or imminent danger.

This is, however, a last resort and the context of the situation will need to be assessed – for example, if an employer has taken reasonable steps to ensure their employees are safe but an employee still does not return to work then this will not apply. An employee cannot refuse to return to work when instructed, without a good reason.

What should I do if I don’t feel safe returning to work?

The first thing you should do is talk to your employer. Make them aware of your concerns and let them address them.

But if your employer is still not ensuring your workplace is COVID secure and you are being told to return to work, you could be able to take legal action. Breaching health and safety regulations is against the law.

If you are facing an employment law issue, we can help you. First4Lawyers works with specialist employment solicitors to ensure that you are treated fairly and legally.

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