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Heading back to work – safely
26 May 2020
UPDATE : On 4 January 2021 the Prime Minister announced that England will adopt a national lockdown. Guidance stipulates that you may only leave your home for work if you cannot reasonably work from home. 
 
As well as Staying Alert, we’re also heading back to work with the restrictions on lockdown being eased to help the economy recover.
Solicitor Julia Fitzsimmons, a Partner with our Employment team, takes a look at what employers need to know and do to make workplaces COVID-19 Safe.
 
What guidance is available to help my business get back to work safely?
The government, in consultation with industry, has produced guidance to help ensure workplaces are as safe as possible. The first 14 guides are available now and cover different types of work and sectors including industry, construction and retail. 
 
What help is available to me if guidance doesn’t apply to my sector?
The Government says that it consulted with around 250 different businesses, unions and industry leaders to create the guidance but it accepts not all of the advice will be applicable to every business. It has boosted the capacity of the Health and Safety Executive, including extra call centre employees, who can help with individual queries.
 
How can I show my clients and customers that we have implemented measures for safe working?
The guidance includes a downloadable notice which businesses can display at their premises. 
 
My business is in the professional services sector and most of my staff are office-based. Is it time to stop home-working if we introduce social distancing measures?
 
Government advice is still to work from home if you can and employers are being asked to take all reasonable steps to help people work from home. If you wish to bring some members of your team back to the office, a risk assessment should be carried out which engages staff.
 
How can I apply social distancing in my workplace?
Employers should re-design workspaces to maintain 2 metre distances between people by staggering start times, creating one way walk-throughs, opening more entrances and exits, or changing seating layouts in break rooms.
 
My business requires staff to work in close proximity to each other and to other people – what do I need to do?
Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, it is up to employers to introduce infection control measures. These could include barriers in shared spaces, fixed teams minimising the number of people in contact with one another, or ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other or the wearing of masks.
 
Where can I find examples of other companies implementing safe working measures?
The national Business Support website has case studies from companies across a number of sectors which have introduced COVID-19 Safe workplaces and are highlighted as part of the #safeworking campaign. 
 
Some of my employees are refusing to return to work as they feel it puts their health at risk. What are my options as an employer?
In normal circumstances, an employer can insist that an employee comes in to work in order to fulfil their contract. We are all aware however that these times are far from normal.
An employee can state that they are refusing to attend work because they reasonably believe that they are at risk of serious and imminent danger. The current circumstances could be the basis for the employee to reasonably believe that do indeed face serious and imminent danger if they come in to work.
We would suggest that a COVID specific risk assessment takes place, all Government guidelines are followed and all communications are shared with the employee. But individual circumstances will need to be taken into account, for example if an employee is in a vulnerable category. 
If an employer has done all it can to ensure a COVID secure workplace and complied with all Government and Health & Safety guidelines, shared these with the employee and listened to their concerns, amending its practices where possible, and the employee is not a vulnerable member of staff, then the potential for disciplining that employee for refusing to return to work is one which open to the company. 

However given the guidelines are looking at employees returning to work only for work which cannot be done at home and needs to be done in the workplace, then it appears at present, a cautious approach should be taken when considering any disciplinary action. Each case would need to be looked at individually as specific employee circumstances would need to be taken into account.