Public Health England data, obtained by the BBC through a Freedom of Information request, showed that there were more than 500 outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, in offices in the second half of 2020. This was more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.
There were even 60 suspected outbreaks at offices in the first two weeks after lockdown had been imposed this year.
Those statistics may be startling for many office workers who have been happily travelling to work and will, of course, need to be taken into account by employers who are already required to carry out risk assessments and to assess whether home working is possible.
Home working requirement
Even with this week’s loosening of lockdown requirements (operational from the 17 May 2021), the government guidance for England still states that a person should continue to work from home if they can.
If they cannot work from home they should continue to travel to their workplace. They do not need to be classed as a key worker to go to work if they cannot work from home.
Employers should still take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, and Covid-secure rules, including social distancing requirements, continue to apply in the workplace.
Health and Safety duties
There is an obligation on employers to ensure the health and safety of employees while at work. A risk assessment should be carried out and government guidance followed. This will include undertaking the specific safety measures relating to offices, contact centres and similar indoor environments. These requirements are enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rather than the police, but contravention can still lead to prosecution and a fine.
An employee who reports concerns relating to what they reasonably believe are breaches of coronavirus restrictions or health and safety provisions will qualify for protection as being a ‘whistleblower’ whether or not there is any actual breach.
This will mean that they have protection from being subjected to any detriment or from being dismissed in relation to such disclosures regardless of their length of service.
- Take all reasonable steps to enable office workers to work from home, including the provision of IT equipment.
- Make clear to employees that they will only be allowed to attend the office where it can be shown they cannot work from home.
- Carry out a risk assessment and make sure the office environment is as Covid secure as possible, taking into account government recommendations.
- Keep working arrangements under review to ensure that they comply with the latest guidance.
- Encourage workers to attend the office just because it is more convenient or on the grounds that supervision may be easier.
- Ignore concerns that employees raise relating to the safety of the office environment.
- Allow non-essential meetings to be arranged between employees and/or with clients.
- Forget to take into account the difficulties that your employees may be dealing with when working from home as many may also have childcare responsibilities.
Chris Thompson is an employment partner at Gateley Legal