As the national lockdown is eased and millions of Brits ditch home offices for communal workspaces, health and employment experts are voicing concern over the lack of protection in place for vulnerable employees.
Under current guidance, all employees able to work from home should do so. But from August 1, employers will be able to decide whether their staff can safely return to the office. The move, which policymakers hope will give the UK economy a much-needed boost, could see workers return to their workplace at the “discretion” of their bosses, provided the work environment is ‘COVID-secure’.
What safety measures will be in place?
To aid the return to work, the government has published in-depth guidance for employers about how to minimise the risk of infection in their workplace. The information spans 14 separate documents, each focused on the specific measure that should be implemented across a range of industries.
The safety measures include ensuring one metre plus social distancing, revised rotas to minimise contact, ensuring a good supply of ventilation and increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning. Bosses must be vigilant to ensure that these safety requirements are met, and take proactive steps to maintain health and safety standards. This will include measuring distances between desks and new entry/exit rules. Employers will also have to carry out a COVID risk assessment. It is strongly advised that employers share the results of their assessment with workers, and discuss any concerns in an open manner. The government also expects all firms with over 50 employees to publish the results online.
However, for many British workers, the prospect of returning to public and private offices, factories, and shops, is concerning. A survey, carried out by YouGov for the CIPD, revealed that 44 per cent of employees felt anxious about returning to their workplace because of Covid-19, and a further 31 per cent were anxious about commuting to work. Many employees said they felt pressured to work even when sick or unwell, and feared that others would come into the workplace when ill, due to sick day stress.
These worries have many asking what to do if their employer fails to protect their health, and how to go about reporting their concerns.
Whistleblowing and the law
According to employment and whistleblowing experts at leading UK law firm, Axiom Stone, all employees have a legal right to hold their company to account if it fails to protect their health. A spokesman for the firm said its lawyers anticipated an increase in the number of complaints relating to wrongdoing in the workplace, particularly concerning health and safety.
They went on: “When the activity comes to an employee or worker’s attention, they should notify the employer or anyone else identified within a policy or procedure as the person to whom the complaint should be made.”
Although whistleblowing may seem like career suicide, UK employment lawyers have been quick to highlight the legal protection afforded to employees who decide to speak out about health and safety issues at their place of work.
An employment expert at Axiom Stone said: “A whistleblower is protected irrespective of how long they have been in the workplace and whether they are directors, partners, freelancers, agency workers, workers or employees. To qualify for protection, the whistleblower must have a reasonable belief that a wrongdoing has occurred, or is likely to occur, and it is in the public interest to make a disclosure.”
Keeping the law on your side
However, despite the protection afforded to whistleblowers in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (ERRA), workers are being warned about the potential risks of pursuing legal action without due cause.
According to Workright, a blog which provides free legal advice about UK employment, recent changes to the ERRA have limited the circumstances which allow employees to qualify for whistleblower protection.
It said: “The changes of ERRA, meant that for an employee to make a disclosure, there had to be “reasonable belief” that the case was in the public interest.”
Employees would qualify for this if they had evidence that official safety advice was not being followed, or if bosses were creating a hostile environment for workers taking sick days.
Work Right said that in most cases, issues could be resolved by discussing concerns with a manager, or the company’s appointed health and safety representatives. Alternatively, if the employee fears the repercussions of internal reporting, or is concerned about a potential coverup, then they should make a protected disclosure to HMRC, their MP, or an external body like the FCA.
There are also many charities and independent organisations which provide practical and confidential guidance for whistleblowers. These include Protect, the NSPCC, and WhistleblowersUK.