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Employment

Office Health & Safety Issues after Lockdown

Office Health & Safety after Lockdown

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Things will never be the same… that’s the conclusion people are coming to during this enforced period of lockdown. We have all been forced to do the best we can with what we have got and some people are perhaps surprised that it is, in fact, possible to work from home when previously they may have thought that it was impossible or at least prohibitively difficult. It’s important therefore to assess the impact of new technology and new ways of working when considering the future after lockdown. What will the office structure of the future look like? What will be the new “normal”?

Open-plan offices and call centres have been very much the norm in recent years. How will these interplay with social distancing measures which are still likely to be in place after lockdown has been lifted? Will we still have to observe the 2-metre rule? Will we all have to have screens around our work stations?

What about client waiting areas? Will we have to limit the number of clients in our waiting areas or screen off separate areas within waiting rooms?

Consideration should also be given to meeting rooms; how can we meet clients in meeting rooms and still observe social distancing? Will it be possible with the introduction of screens or should we meet virtually in separate rooms with the aid of video conferencing? Should we stop meeting clients in the office and insist of remote meetings by telephone or video?

And what about staff? Will it be necessary to implement regular testing of staff (once testing is more widely available of course) or tracker apps?

Would it be possible to observe social distancing by bringing perhaps half of the workforce back to work, allowing the other half to continue working from home and then rotate? If we do that and this continues, the company’s footprint is likely to shrink rapidly and employers will be able to make huge savings in relation to VAT and rent when it comes to rent review time. Those landlords and local authorities who refuse to be flexible with their tenants now may well find a reduction in their income in the future when tenants review their rental costs.

Why is all of this important? Well, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy working environment for their employees. Under section 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, if someone, in circumstances of danger which they reasonably believe to be serious or imminent and which they cannot avert, leaves or refuses to return to work, that could be a dismissal on the grounds of health and safety. There is no 2-year qualifying period nor any cap on compensation. The employer could, therefore, face a large claim for damages.

If an employee therefore reasonably believes they are in serious or imminent danger of contracting COVID 19 by returning to work say in a call centre where no changes have been made and it is impossible to observe self-distancing; that employee may refuse to return to work and may bring an employment tribunal claim against the employer for constructive dismissal on the grounds of health and safety.

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