Coronavirus travel hazards

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Organisations have a duty of care to employees, as well as operational ramifications to consider

If you asked the average person for their opinion on the dangers of coronavirus their answers would range from “it’s exaggerated” to “it’s the end of the world”.

With the attention it has been given by the global media one response you are guaranteed not to receive is “coronavirus… what’s that?”

Unfortunately there is no unified approach that companies can take to protect their staff, as each company’s response depends on the type of business they operate and the industry that they’re in.

A specific aspect of responding to this global emergency (as defined by the World Health Organisation) is how to approach work-related travel. This is an obvious concern for businesses, and it is advisable for companies to consider ways to make work-related travel less hazardous.

Some employers may be able to permit homeworking, or allow commutes outside of rush hour for those who use public transport, to minimise the risk of infection. However, these approaches may not be feasible for businesses that have to operate at certain times and in certain places.

There are still valid reasons why most people work nine to five and operate from a conventional office environment, with daily travel being almost unavoidable.

Though companies should not feel compelled to make drastic changes to travel plans just yet, certain minor changes that could have a substantial positive impact should be properly explored.

As an employer you have a duty of health and safety towards your employees, and must ensure that you provide them with a safe working environment.

Therefore any work-related travel to an area where coronavirus is known to be present, such as Hubei province in China or northern Italy, should be heavily discouraged if not forbidden.

The World Health Organisation recommends that all employers assess the benefits and risks relating to upcoming travel plans, and advises them to avoid sending employees to areas where the virus is spreading.

This is especially the case for anyone who is more vulnerable to infection such as anyone who is elderly, pregnant, or has an autoimmune condition.

In addition to work-related travel, companies should also consider any personal travel that staff take. Public Health England has published guidance for businesses that focuses on self-isolation for particular groups of people.

Anyone returning from an area that is known to be affected, whether the individual is showing symptoms or not, is advised to self-isolate for 14 days.

Therefore any employee who is returning from, or about to commence, international travel should be logged by the company and checked against updated travel information.

Any staff returning from an affected area should be asked to stay away from the workplace, and where possible work from home for the 14-day isolation period.

If a company does not take measures to restrict work-related travel it could possibly be seen as short-sighted and irresponsible. The virus is potentially deadly so if an employee has been put in harm’s way on the instruction of their employer then the employer may be held responsible.

Even if the contracted disease is only mild and the individual is able to recover this would still mean isolation and absence from work for some time. Furthermore, if he or she returns to the workplace unknowingly having contracted the disease, and proceeds to come into contact with colleagues before the symptoms are discovered, the potential impact this could have on the business may be significant.

In addition to considering the needs of the business employers must also consider their duty of care to their employees. Many companies may believe certain measures to be excessive, but failing to respond proactively could have significant ramifications for businesses long term.

Steven King is a solicitor in the employment law team at Seddons

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