I don't feel safe to work during the pandemic — what are my rights?
More than 70% of employees feel unsafe, and at risk of COVID, in the workplace. Contracting COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces is a widespread concern. And while social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing is crucial to help workers feel safe, the majority of workplaces are yet to implement such measures.
Not all professions can be performed from home, meaning on-premises work is the only option. If that’s the case, safety fears can place you in a difficult dilemma: you need to work, but feel too wary of contracting COVID to actually go.
Everyone has the right to feel safe and comfortable in their workplace. But if you feel at risk, is the law really on your side?
Your legal rights in the workplace during the pandemic
Employers are required by law to provide employees with a safe workplace, and to ensure that all tasks undertaken can be done so safely. This applies to all industries.
Employees have a right to leave work if they feel conditions are unsafe, as stipulated in Section 44 of the Employment Act 1996. The law hasn’t changed since coronavirus struck: your employer must take the necessary actions to maintain a safe working environment.
What responsibilities do employers have when protecting workers?
Employers should take the following steps to secure workplaces:
Update risk assessments
Risk assessments must be updated to manage the danger of COVID-19 effectively. This includes:
- Identify specific activities/situations that could lead to contamination
- Consider who may be at risk and how
- Determine the likelihood that someone may be exposed
- Remove any potentially dangerous activity/situation or control the risk as effectively as possible.
Enforce social distancing
Everyone in the workplace should stay at least two metres apart. If this is impossible, one metre is the minimum safe distance when other precautions are taken:
- Cleaning surfaces frequently
- Washing hands thoroughly
- Wearing masks when possible.
Implement air conditioning/ventilation
Ventilation, such as air conditioning, can help to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus. This may include opening windows and doors (but not fire doors).
Make employees aware of safety measures
Employers should speak to workers about the steps taken to maximise safety, welcome suggestions, and make sure precautions are followed consistently.
If certain employees are more vulnerable than others, employers should consider their increased risk and take necessary action to protect them. When work can be performed remotely, employers should provide essential equipment (e.g. computer, phone, software) and maintain regular contact.
If your employer fails to take one or more of these steps and you continue to feel unsafe, share your concerns with them.
Citizens Advice suggests that you explain to a manager why you believe yourself (and colleagues) may be at risk. Do so in a constructive manner and ask them to make the necessary changes to rectify the situation.
Is corporate COVID testing mandatory for employers?
One option for employers is corporate testing. It isn’t mandatory — that would be a breach of employee data protection, according to the ICO — but it can be an effective way of keeping workers safe.
Corona Test Centre offers 98% accuracy for igM/igG antibody and 93.8% for antigen testing in companies of all sizes. Up to 750 employees can be tested each day with same-day results (for antibody and antigen tests).
Corporate testing can reduce the risk of infected workers passing the virus on to colleagues and/or members of the public. It may help to give employees greater peace of mind too — while demonstrating that an employer is taking safety very seriously indeed.
Will I face legal consequences if I leave an unsafe workplace?
By law, you have the right to leave a workplace if you feel it’s unsafe. The risk could be due to a lack of COVID safety measures, faulty electrics, fire hazards, or anything else. But this should be a last resort when your employer refuses to take action or ignores your concerns.
Employers cannot fire you or withhold your pay if you leave and refuse to return. Section 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 protects workers when raising safety concerns or refusing to work in dangerous environments.
However — and this is well worth nothing — you would need to prove that your employer was falling short of their legal Health and Safety responsibilities.
This can make situations more complicated, true. But it shouldn’t discourage employees from safeguarding themselves, colleagues, and members of the public from avoidable risks either.
My employer is doing everything they can to be COVID secure, but I still don’t feel safe. What now?
Even if an employer is doing all they can to reduce risks, employees could still be concerned when returning to work in an office, shop, or any other other environment during a global pandemic.
In most cases, an employer will not have to pay you if you choose not to work. You and your employer may be able to reach an understanding, though, if you open the discussion.
They could agree to furlough you, for example — particularly if a health condition makes you more vulnerable. This is an option if you were employed and paid on or prior to 30th October 2020.
You may be eligible for furlough even if you:
- Have a zero-hours or temporary contract
- Are an agency worker
- Are employed by more than one company, as each can take advantage of the Coronavirus Job Retention scheme
Various furlough options are available, e.g. you may work on-site two days per week and furloughed the remaining three.
Please note: furlough is only available for a limited window. At the time of writing, employers will be able to furlough employees until the end of April 2021.
What if I’ve been advised to shield for my own safety?
If the NHS considers you extremely clinically vulnerable, you could put yourself in danger if you continue to go to work.
Your employer cannot make you return to the premises, and they should allow you to work from home if possible. They may offer special paid leave, though they are not obligated to. You may be eligible for furlough, Statutory Sick Pay, Universal Credit, or other allowances.
If your employer refuses to assist you or anyone else who needs to shield (such as pregnant women or individuals affected by a disability), this could be considered disability discrimination.
Where to go for more information...
If you’re concerned about working during the pandemic, there are plenty of resources available online.
Citizens Advice is one of the most informative websites for any employee, during the current crisis and beyond. There, you’ll find guidance on your rights and potential actions to help if:
- You have issues getting furlough pay
- You need to take time off work to care for someone else
- You’re self-employed
- You want to leave your job
Citizens Advice advisers are also available to help directly by phone or online. You can reach them via the free Adviceline on 0800 144 8848 (England) or Advicelink on 0800 702 2020 (Wales).
Advisers are also available through Relay UK if you’re unable to speak on the phone or have hearing difficulties. Further information is available on the Citizens Advice contact page.
UNISON, the biggest union in the UK, also has in-depth information on your rights at work during the pandemic. And finally, the Employment Rights Act 1996 is available in full, for free, at legislation.gov.uk.
If you want to discuss corporate testing for your workplace, COVID-19 Antigen tests, PCR tests, or Fit to Fly testing, you can speak to Corona Test Centre’s expert team now. We’re here to help.