Coronavirus: an employer’s duty to protect
The government has announced that coronavirus is a ‘serious and imminent threat' to the British public, as the confirmed number cases in the UK rises to eight. The global number of coronavirus-related deaths has reached 910.
To what extent should employers be taking measures to protect employees and prevent the spread of the virus? If no employees have been to or had any contact with someone from China, do employers need to do anything at all?
The government has stated that, for the majority, no more than thorough hygiene measures are required. Coronavirus only differs from the flu because it’s a new illness that means we have no immunity to it.
However, it only takes one employee to have been exposed to the virus for an employer to need to take steps. For example, American worldwide employment search service, Indeed, has advised up to 1,000 employees to work from home after it emerged that one of the company's workers may have been exposed to the virus.
Speaking to Cover Magazine, Jo Stubbs, Head of Product Content Strategy for XpertHR said:
"With the spread of the coronavirus, it's important for employers to consider what they can do to protect their business and workforce. For example, they should issue clear guidance to employees who have recently travelled to China or who have been in contact with someone who has.
"If they haven't already got one, employers should consider putting in place a flu pandemic contingency plan to address business continuity in case the situation worsens. They should also consider implementing an infectious diseases in the workplace policy to ensure a clear approach to minimising the risk of the coronavirus being contracted and spread."
The guidance makes the following points:
- Employers would be justified in instructing any employee with the symptoms associated with the coronavirus not to attend work.
- There is generally no requirement for employers to close their workplace, but employers should check guidance from the Department of Health on a regular basis.
- Employers cannot insist that their employees are tested for flu.
- Employers should check guidance from the Department of Health or the relevant public health body on any health conditions that could make someone vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus.
The full guidance is available here.
For workers who are required to travel for their work, there are a number of other considerations. Stephen Thomas, Health and Safety Business Partner at IOSH, says:
“Employers should consider whether the travel is absolutely necessary: can you achieve the same result with video conferencing and spare the organisation and traveller the risk, time, cost and environmental impact?”
The IOSH guidance states that, if travel is deemed necessary then you need to effectively but proportionately manage the risk, with controls identified and implemented which reflect the nature and severity of the risk. Such controls should be identified through a travel risk assessment incorporating not only the travel, accommodation and work itself but also the traveller’s physical and mental capabilities. The travellers themselves should be involved in this process.
The full IOSH guidance is available here.
You can get up to date information about the situation in the UK and guidance for the public on the risk from Coronavirus on the government’s website.
The HSE is working with the DHSC, PHE and other government departments to provide support when it’s needed, including technical advice on the protection of workers.