Published: 09:45, 10 July 2020
| Updated: 09:47, 10 July 2020
With many companies introducing a phased return to work, a leading law firm has warned essential steps must be take to limit liability should the virus hit staff.
Deborah Geering, a senior associate with Furley Page, which has offices in Canterbury, Chatham and Whitstable, explains: “Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) to ensure they provide a safe environment for staff and those visiting the business.
"As lockdown restrictions are eased, existing health and safety policies will need to be updated to take account of social distancing rules, and a comprehensive risk assessment must be undertaken, in consultation with staff.
“Any employer that can be shown to have been negligent in how it managed risks, resulting in the infection of staff or visitors, could be liable to prosecution, particularly if they have not properly assessed potential risks and put appropriate measures in place.
“When the government’s ‘track and trace’ system is finally implemented, it should become very clear where a new outbreak of Covid19 has arisen. From both a staff safety perspective and in terms of the businesses’ reputation, you do not want your offices to be the centre of a new outbreak. Putting some simple protective measures in place could make all the difference.”
The law firm suggests three main points for business owners to ensure they have undertaken.
Firstly, draft a 'return to work' policy. This should consider existing working conditions and consider how these might breach current guidelines if no updates are made to working practices. Considerations should include whether social distancing rules can be properly enforced and, if not, what measures should be taken to ensure staff can work safely and why these were considered necessary.
Secondly, undertake a risk assessment. This should be an inspection of the site with any high risk areas identified.
The legal expert added: “Business have a duty to ensure the safety of all those on site, so the risk assessment needs to consider the welfare of anyone coming onto the business premises, not just the employees, but consultants, clients, suppliers - including couriers, Post Office staff and refuse collectors - and business visitors and so on.”
And, finally, ensure you consult with staff.
Deborath Geering adds: "Staff consultation is an essential requirement under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Given the current restrictions, businesses should consider circulating a questionnaire to all staff - including those who may be furloughed, on long term sick leave, or maternity/paternity leave. All staff answers should be collated and consideration given to concerns raised, and any business with 50 employees or more must publish its risk assessment on the company’s website.
“The government’s guidance is likely to change, thus it is important that any written policies are regularly reviewed and updated in consultation with staff. Provided businesses assess the risks in their individual offices, record their findings and the measures they put in place to reduce risks, this will likely help to mitigate any liability should an outbreak of Covid-19 occur.”