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What can HR do to keep high-risk workers safe from coronavirus?

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The many changes and restrictions COVID-19 has brought are becoming a new way of life. However, there are significant variations in how employers are reacting to the pandemic and the lengths they’re prepared to go to in order to protect employees.

Data on deaths by occupation released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that between 9 March and 28 December 2020, 7,961 COVID-19 related deaths occurred in those of working age (between 20 and 64). Almost two thirds were men.

The HSE said this indicates that men who work in elementary occupations, such as those involving hand-held tools and some physical effort, or caring, leisure and service occupations were more likely to due to exposure to COVID-19.

In women, the most common occupations were process, plant and machine operative posts followed by caring, leisure and other service occupations.

Generally, people working in social care appear to have statistically significantly higher death rates, with 347 deaths in care and healthcare workers. This is perhaps unsurprising given the levels of unavoidable exposure, but the number of deaths in other industries raises the question as to whether employers are putting sufficient measures in place to protect staff.

 

So, what should employers be doing?

The HSE has issued detailed guidance on how to make workplaces safe such as carrying out risk assessments; implementing social distancing and additional hygiene measures; increasing ventilation; keeping employees informed of changes to working practices; enabling working from home where possible; and making adjustments for particularly vulnerable workers.

Employers should be taking these measures to comply with their legal obligations to provide safe workplaces, safe systems of work and safe work equipment. Altering work systems, workplaces and providing additional equipment to reduce the spread of COVID-19 would fall within these obligations.

Employers are vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees so should ensure that health and safety measures are adhered to and not overlooked.

First and foremost, employers should be carrying out risk assessments under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Additional and separate risk assessments should be carried out for employees at particular risk, such as those with underlying health conditions or those who are pregnant. Further adjustments may ultimately need to be made for those employees.

Employers also need to be mindful of the risks this pandemic imposes upon their employees from a variety of perspectives which could result in a potential claim for the contraction of severe cases of COVID-19.

Firstly, there’s the risk of employees contracting COVID-19. If an employee can show that their employer has taken no, or very minimal, steps to make their working environment safe, they may be able to establish a breach of duty. Courts may consider applying alternative well-established causation tests, which are currently applied in occupational disease cases, to COVID-19.

With many employees now working from home, there’s a real risk of physical injuries as a result of ergonomically poor workspace setups. Employers need to ensure that they’ve provided the correct equipment and suitable training to enable employees to work safely and comfortably from home.

There is also the issue of employees being under increased pressures due to colleague sickness or isolation. This could lead to employees being over-worked or covering tasks/using machinery they’re not trained to use and could in turn lead to either physical or psychological injury.

The pandemic is certainly a minefield for employers, but each employee has a right to feel safe and protected as far as possible in their work. It remains to be seen how the law will develop in this area, but any business that chooses not to take government and HSE guidance does so at their own peril.

 

Danielle Callaway is a partner and solicitor in the personal injury team at Stephensons Solicitors.

 

In celebration of International Women's Day this year across the week HR magazine will be providing expert perspectives on gender equality and the expectations of women in the workplace. 

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