returning to work FAQs

FAQs for employers returning to work after coronavirus

Lockdown is gradually lifting and many workplaces are now considering how and when they should return to the office. To help you make the right decisions about health and safety, we answer some frequently asked questions about how to go about returning to work after coronavirus.

Question 1) What are my obligations to protect the health and safety of my staff?

Answer: As an employer, you have a legal obligation to look after the health and safety of your employees as stated by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974:

‘It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees (Section 2(1)).’

This means you are required by law to follow and implement any specific regulations and guidance issued by the government relating to coronavirus, including social distancing measures or PPE equipment. Failing to comply with these measures can result in claims being made by employees and can even be seen as a criminal offence.

Question 2) What steps should I take to protect the health and safety of my staff?

Answer: Conduct a risk assessment of all workplace activities to identify potential hazards and take steps to mitigate any risks you have identified. You are legally required to provide employees with specific information regarding such health and safety risks and inform them on the steps taken to protect them.

We recommend being totally open and honest with your employees about the measures you are taking, and even to go above and beyond what you deem to be necessary in order to reassure your teams that you take their wellbeing seriously. Think about setting up a forum where staff can voice their views and provide a point of contact to assist with those returning to help protect yourself from potential claims.

For many places of work, managing the health and safety risks will include:

  • Rearranging workstations in order to maintain a 2-metre distance between each employee
  • Providing more equipment so staff don’t have to share
  • Limiting the number of people in the office at one time – possibly by implementing alternate office and home working days
  • Providing face masks, washing facilities and hand sanitiser
  • Implementing flexible working times for those travelling on public transport so they can avoid rush hour
  • Restricting meetings and social events
  • Providing an isolated space where employees can go if they start presenting symptoms of coronavirus
  • Increasing cleaning operations
  • Considering how to protect the mental wellbeing of employees

Question 3) Should employers conduct health checks on returning workers?

Answer: Some employers may be considering conducting health checks on employees who are returning to work, such as testing their temperature. As an employer, you are able to carry out such tests if deemed appropriate for your workplace. However, as this is such a complex question that has no definite answer at the moment, there are many things to consider before doing so, including the storing of personal data and the physical invasiveness of the test itself. The government has issued no clear guidance as yet but we will continue to monitor the situation and release up to date guidance as soon as it is available.

Question 4) What do I need to consider regarding extremely vulnerable employees?

Answer: Doctors identified a group of people who are particularly at risk from coronavirus, described as “clinically extremely vulnerable’, and this group were advised to shield themselves from the virus by remaining at home at all times. So, while guidelines for those in this group are slowly easing (they are now allowed to spend time outside), it would still be a breach of health and safety law if an employer insists an extremely vulnerable employee return to work while the guidance tells them to stay at home.

However, an employer will not be expected to keep such staff members on full pay if they are unable to work from home and they are entitled to statutory sick pay if they are not able to work while shielding. It is also worth considering any employees who live with someone classed as clinically extremely vulnerable by conducting a risk assessment to determine if it is safe for them to return to work.

Question 5) What can an employer do if someone refuses to come into work?

Answer: There are a number of reasons why someone would not want to return to work, such as concerns over their or others health, they feel it would be detrimental to their mental health or they simply enjoyed working from home. In any case, it’s important to open communications with employees to understand exactly why they do not want to return to the workplace.

As an employer, you are entitled to take disciplinary action or withhold pay if a staff member refuses to return to work. However, we advise you to explore the matter very carefully and sensitively before taking such action and consider if there are additional steps you can take to reassure the employee before the situation escalates further. An employee can bring claims against their employer if they feel more could have been done to protect their health and safety or they were dismissed because their refusal to return to work was automatically deemed unfair, so it’s important to explore all options before taking a hard stance.

Question 6) What should an employer do if an employee is unable to return to work because of childcare issues?

Answer: The first thing to do if an employee is unable to attend work because of childcare issues is to sit down with that employee and have an open and honest discussion about the situation. In this talk you should decide on next steps and discuss the options available to them. Before entering into discussions, be mindful of potential discrimination risks and check the employees’ contract in regard to time off for emergencies and parental leave.

There are many other questions regarding returning to work after Covid-19 so if you have any concerns or queries that are not listed here, or would like to expand on a point raised in this article, please don’t hesitate to contact the HR Gurus at Streetwise today on 0844 682 7488.

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