On 30 January 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a public health emergency of international concern regarding the recent outbreak of the coronavirus.
The UK Government has since increased the risk to the public from low to moderate, although the risk to individuals has not yet changed. As an employer, do you have a duty to protect your staff and/or customers from the deadly virus?
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places an overarching duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all its employees (section 2). Employers are also under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that those not in its employment are also not exposed to risks to their health and safety (section 3), and to consult with trade union or other appointed health and safety representatives about health and safety matters (section 6).
Whilst the Government has not deemed it necessary to issue guidance on actions employers should take at this stage, it would be appropriate to consider what actions the business could be taking in the event of a pandemic.
Keep employees informed of health risks
Employers should monitor the Government page on the coronavirus to ensure they are keeping in line with the guidance and communicate any actions effectively to all employees. You should make sure that you have the most up to date contact details for all employees.
Employees should be encouraged to practice good hygiene – the WHO advises that individuals should frequently clean their hands using alcohol-based hand rubs or soap and water, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, immediately throwing tissues away and washing their hands, and avoiding close contact with anyone who has a fever and/or cough.
It may also be necessary to consider further steps, depending on the type of business you are operating, such as avoiding direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals.
During a pandemic, employers should communicate emergency policies and procedures, and give clear instructions on how employees are to comply. It will be important to keep employees informed and providing regular updates based on a workplace risk assessment and the most recent NHS guidance.
Practical steps may be taken to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus. Employers should advise staff to stay at home if they are sick and to let their manager know at the earliest opportunity. It should be emphasised that this is important since retaining sick employees in the confines of a workplace will increase the likelihood of further spread of the disease to the workforce. Managers should be told to send any employees who are displaying flu-like signs/symptoms home at the earliest opportunity.
Employees who have sick children should also be advised to stay at home to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
Employees absent due to sickness will generally be entitled to statutory sick pay and possibly enhanced company sick pay. The entitlement should be detailed in the contract of employment and workplace policies.
If employees can safely work from home then this should be identified and encouraged. Opting for video-conferencing or tele-conferencing where possible instead of holding meetings is a practical precaution. Remote electronic working, where feasible, will reduce face-to-face meetings.
Throughout the duration of a pandemic there may be a shortage of people in work which may lead to more tasks being done by other staff members. Similarly, employee sickness absences may create a need for other employees, if willing, to work longer hours in order to keep the business going. Consideration should be given to providing support and training to assist these workers. Care should be taken that they are not overloaded with work during this period to the extent that it places them at risk.
Further advice and guidance is available from the Health and Safety Executive's Guidance on Pandemic Flu.