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Swine flu: Employers could face fines for not protecting staff from the virus

As instances of swine flu double, employers could face legal action under health and safety legislation if they do not adequately protect staff from the virus, according to legal experts.

If employers breach their duty of care and take extra steps to prevent staff catching the H1N1 virus, they could face costly law suits of tens of thousands of pounds.

On Friday absence management organisation Firstcare reported 177,000 staff had taken time off work with swine flu symptoms, compared to 80,000 the week previous. This morning the Government advised pregnant women to avoid travel on public transport during rush hour, and pregnant medical staff were advised not to

James Wilders, employment law partner at Dickenson Dees, said: "If employers can show they have taken reasonable steps to provide a safe working environment, they will not be liable, either in criminal or civil proceedings.

"These do not need to be complex and would include ensuring rooms are properly ventilated, having soap and hygiene gel available, communicating company policy on illness and, above all, ensuring people with symptoms are sent home promptly.

Remote working is one of the best forms of protecting staff. If it works for particular job functions, employers should make it a priority to use it.

If necessary, develop a rota for those wishing to work remotely to minimise the amount of people in the office and any potential to transmit the virus through travelling to work.

In cases such as these, the employer can show it has tried to minimise the risk to the employee. However, asking people who are exhibiting symptoms to stay at work or come in would certainly be deemed risky practice under the Health & Safety Act."

He added: "Clearly each case will be judged differently and potential payouts would vary considerably.  Ultimately it will be up to the employee to establish whether an employer is responsible for their having contracted the virus. By taking the necessary precautions well in advance, employers will protect themselves and their businesses from workplace disruption and the worry of lawsuits which could occur as a result."