7 April 2020

Health and Safety Executive monitoring social distancing at work

Social distancing in the workplace

Social distancing is now high on the Health and Safety Executive’s agenda as it strives to prevent health and safety risks in the workplace at a time when its routine inspections have been suspended.

To reinforce the point, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued a joint statement with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which stresses that the health and safety of workers remains paramount.

The statement acknowledges the efforts employers are already making to follow Public Health England’s (PHE) guidance, in particular around social distancing, noting that: “firms that can safely stay open and support livelihoods should not be forced to close by misunderstandings about government guidance.”

However, it contains an express warning: “If it comes to the HSE’s attention that employers are not complying with the relevant guidance (including enabling social distancing where it is practical to do so), HSE will consider a range of actions ranging from providing specific advice to employers through to issuing enforcement notices, including prohibition notices.”

Workers’ health and safety concerns

The HSE, TUC and CBI encourages workers with genuine concerns about health and safety to speak to their employer or trade union first. However, if the issue cannot be resolved at that stage, the joint statement encourages workers to contact the HSE or their local authority.

Reading between the lines, it appears the HSE, TUC and CBI believe that, after the initial scramble which followed lockdown on March 23 2020, those in control of work have now had time to assess risks and institute reasonably practicable control measures. This week the HSE and local authority environmental health officers will begin unannounced inspections.

If the inspector believes a material risk to health and safety exists, employers can expect to receive an enforcement notice and a fee for intervention, neither of which is usually insured. The time limit for appealing an enforcement notice is only 21 days and rarely are the legal costs of such appeals covered by insurance either.

Anyone in control of work who needs help in understanding what is required of them under the law, or in dealing with employee complaints about health and safety, should seek advice.

Updated April 8 2020: Further progress on the HSE and social distancing

New UK government advice has been issued on social distancing in the workplace in various industry sectors– taking this alongside the HSE/TUC/CBI joint statement, it is not difficult to envisage health and safety inspections of workplaces taking place soon, with inspectors checking that businesses and workers are following the government’s practical advice.

Contemporaneous documentary evidence is the best evidence in defending health and safety enforcement now and future personal injury claims and criminal prosecutions in the future.

So, businesses in all sectors should now be following the government advice and simultaneously recording, in writing, the steps they are taking to do so.

Engagement with the workforce is also vital during the maelstrom of coronavirus. The new government guidance can be used to explain the steps companies are taking to ensure health and safety and reassure workers who are worried about coronavirus contamination in the workplace.

Anyone in control of work who needs help in understanding what is required of them under the law, or in dealing with employee complaints about health and safety, should seek advice.

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About the Author
Ruth Sheret, Senior Associate

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