The landscape of the workplace has changed significantly for almost everyone in the midst of the current pandemic, and many people remain reticent about returning to their workplace for fear of contracting the virus. There remain a lot of ‘unknowns’ when it comes to Covid-19 and this adds to the anxieties of those returning to work from furlough.
Employers are in a difficult position as they have been faced with sudden substantial changes to be made to the working environment in order to protect their employees. They have been forced to act quickly to adapt to brand new government guidance which is continually being updated. In addition, they remain bound by the Health and Safety legislation already in place which requires them to risk assess the workplace and ensure it is safe for employees.
The government guidance requires employers to ensure that workplaces are safe whilst also enabling working from home where possible. In order to make the workplace safe, measures need to be implemented to allow for social distancing, regular handwashing/sanitising and suitable ventilation. This inevitably means that many employers cannot make the workplace safe for their entire workforce where, for example, desks are too close together to allow for social distancing. Employers also need to be particularly mindful of any especially vulnerable members of their workforce and need to make reasonable adjustments for those employees.
As many employers have introduced the concept of remote working, or rolled it out to a greater extent, due to the impact of Covid-19, they also need to be mindful of the safety of those employees working at home in the context of their work station. Employees should be provided with the equipment that they need to work comfortably and safely at home.
If employers do not take the government guidance relating to the pandemic seriously, situations may arise where employees who have returned to the workplace go on to contract Covid-19 and assert that this was a result of their employer’s failure to take reasonable steps to protect them. It may be difficult for employees to prove exactly where they contracted the virus but, if several employees from the same workplace test positive for Covid-19, questions may well be raised about whether the employer had done enough to keep them safe.
It remains to be seen how the law will develop in this area as it cannot be denied that employers are under a great deal of pressure in the midst of the pandemic and that these are challenging times for businesses and individuals alike. However, a business who does not take the government guidance relating to Covid-19 seriously should do so at their own peril, as there is certainly potential for floodgates to open in cases where the virus spreads through workplaces without sufficient safety measures in place.