Coronavirus guidance for employee health and safety

Jon Cooper, partner, and Ashley Borthwick, managing associate, of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson have published guidance in response to frequently asked questions relating to the the risks of the coronavirus from a health and safety perspective.

Prevention

Above all, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This includes providing a safe working environment by taking steps to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Employers are also under a duty to take reasonable steps to protect anyone else who might be placed at risk by their business activities. This might include, for example, members of the public and contractors.

The risk of COVID-19 is no different to diseases such as legionella and the same principles apply for businesses in terms of risk assessment. The danger of its spread should be assessed and appropriate control measures should be put. The Health and Safety Executive states that employers should follow the relevant government advice.

Guidance has been published online for specific industry sectors including the transport, residential care, education sectors as well as for businesses more generally. The information is continuously developing and it is therefore important that businesses continually monitor it and react quickly to any changes.

Employers should also encourage employees to let them know of any particular circumstances which may place them at higher risk so that appropriate adjustments can be made. It may also be prudent to remind employees of their own statutory duties to take care of their own safety and that of their colleagues.

Reporting

Individual cases of COVID-19 are generally not reportable through Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations regulations, on the basis that it is likely to be difficult to prove that the relevant individual contracted the disease from exposure at their workplace.

Home working

Where home working is a viable option, typically for office-based activities, there might be a tension between two competing risks: the risk of COVID-19 versus the health risks of working at home.

In particular, employers have a duty to protect employees from the health risks of working with display screen equipment, such as laptops, under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992.

In the circumstances, we consider that it is highly unlikely that businesses would be criticised for encouraging home working without the appropriate risk assessments and control measures being in place in relation to display screen equipment.

However, given that the current situation could potentially last a number of weeks or months, businesses should be giving consideration to providing employees with training and information to allow them to work from home safely. This information could include, for example, instructions on how to set up a laptop correctly at home to avoid muscular pain.

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