Coronavirus: what are employers' health and safety obligations?

04.03.20

Coronavirus is having an impact on many industries. But what should UK businesses be doing to ensure they comply with health and safety obligations to employees and members of the public?

Employers' duties

Given the media coverage of the virus, it would be fair to conclude that most employers in the UK are fixed with knowledge of the issue. The Health and Safety Executive has confirmed that it is working closely with government bodies to provide support when it’s needed, including technical advice on the protection of workers, but no official guidance has yet been issued. 

Employers should consider their general duties under Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (‘HSWA’) (and ancillary regulations) when deciding how to manage the risks presented by Covid-19. Employers have duties to control the risk of harm to people their work may affect – this includes non-employees as well as employees. 

Section 2 of the HSWA is relevant in the context of coronavirus prevention as employers must:

  • Ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees.
  • Provide such information, instruction and training to ensure the health and safety at work of their employees - this may include information and guidance on what coronavirus is and how to prevent it spreading.
  • Provide adequate facilities and arrangements for employees’ welfare at work - this will include sanitary and handwashing facilities; particularly as handwashing can help to prevent the virus spreading.

Employers and self-employed persons also have duties to non-employees under section 3 of the HSWA. They must conduct their work activities in a manner that does not expose non-employees to health or safety risks. Non-employees may include clients, customers, suppliers, on-site contractors or other workers (security, cleaners, caretakers etc.) or members of the general public.

Practical tips

In the absence of official guidance for employers, they can still control the spread of coronavirus from their work activities by taking practical steps. Examples of such steps include:

  • Consider whether a new or specific risk assessment is required; this will depend on the industry and type of business operations.
  • Restrict work-related travel to countries/regions of high risk and consider use of video technology. 
  • Advise employees to inform their employer of personal travel plans to affected countries/regions.
  • Ensure that employees returning from affected countries/regions follow government advice, particularly regarding self-isolation.  
  • Implement NHS advice on how to minimise the spread of the virus by encouraging employees to follow good hygiene and handwashing practices, and display posters in washrooms and kitchens.   

Measures for employers and self-employed persons to consider are:

  • Display information regarding coronavirus in visitor areas; 
  • Advise visitors to follow guidance on preventative measures such as handwashing.

Non compliance

If businesses fail to comply with their health and safety duties, they could risk exposure to:

  • Compensation claims from employees or other workers – if a worker has contracted coronavirus through their work activities because the employer failed to reasonably control the risk.
  • Public liability claims - if a member of the public has contracted coronavirus because the employer or self-employed person failed to reasonably control the risk connected with their work activities. 
  • Criminal liabilities - companies and directors can be fined or face custodial sentences if they breach their duties under health and safety law. 

It is good practice for employers to retain a paper trail of advice and guidance issued to employees and displayed in the workplace regarding coronavirus. In the event of a claim or complaint later down the line, a paper trail may assist in demonstrating that the employer had put appropriate measures in place to appropriately manage the risk. 

Employee cooperation 

Primary health and safety duties fall to employers but in the context of coronavirus, employee engagement and cooperation is vital in preventing the spread of the virus; employees can take steps such as:

  • Informing their employer if they have a pre-arranged holiday to the affected countries/regions;
  • Checking the latest government advice on travel before planning any trips abroad;
  • Adhering to government advice for return travellers from the affected countries/regions which may include self-isolation;
  • Following employers' guidelines and NHS advice on hygiene, to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Employers should also consider the HR/employment law issues arising from the coronavirus. Our employment law colleagues have also written a blog for employers.