18 Mar 2020

This article covers some of the frequent questions we have been asked by businesses managing the risks of COVID-19 from a health and safety perspective.

What are the legal duties upon businesses?

In summary, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This includes providing a safe working environment by taking steps to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Employers are also under a duty to take reasonable steps to protect anyone else who might be placed at risk by their business activities. This might include, for example, members of the public and contractors.

What approach and steps should businesses be taking?

In terms of the approach, businesses will be familiar with conducting risk assessments including for diseases such as legionella. The risk of COVID-19 is no different and the same principles apply.

The risk of COVID-19 spreading should be assessed and appropriate control measures should be put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

In terms of practical advice regarding reasonable steps to take, the UK regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is clear that employers should follow the relevant government guidance.

Guidance has been published online for specific industry sectors including the transport, residential care, education sectors as well as for businesses more generally. The guidance is continuously developing. It is therefore important that businesses ensure that it is being continually monitored and react quickly to any changes.

Employers should encourage employees to let them know of any particular circumstances which may place them at higher risk so that appropriate adjustments can be made.

It may also be prudent to remind employees of their own statutory duties to take care of their own safety and that of their colleagues.

Do I need to report cases of COVID-19 under RIDDOR?

Individual cases of COVID-19 are generally not reportable on the basis that it is likely to be difficult to prove that the relevant individual contracted the disease from exposure at their workplace.

What about the risks of home working?

Where home working is a viable option, typically for office based activities, there might be a tension between two competing risks: the risk of COVID-19 vs. the health risks of working at home.

In particular, employers have a duty to protect employees from the health risks of working with display screen equipment, such as laptops, under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992.

In the circumstances, we consider that it is highly unlikely that businesses would be criticised for encouraging home working without the appropriate risk assessments and control measures being in place in relation to display screen equipment.

However, given that the current situation could potentially last a number of weeks or months, businesses should be giving consideration to providing employees with training and information to allow them to work from home safely. This information could include, for example, instructions on how to set up a laptop correctly at home to avoid muscular pain.

Should you have any queries or require assistance with these issues, please do not hesitate to contact the specialist health, safety and environmental team at Womble Bond Dickinson, who would be happy to help.