Health and Safety at Work
PLEASE NOTE: This page is intended to give general information about the law but is not intended as legal advice and you must not rely on it as such, nor is any liability accepted if you do rely on it. The law may change from time to time and we cannot include all elements of the law and its application in this summary. For further advice relating to your circumstances, please contact us.
Does my employer have to protect my health and safety at work?
Yes. All employers are under a duty to take reasonable care of the health, safety at welfare of their employees and others who could foreseeably be harmed as a result of the employer’s activities.
What does my employer have to do?
An employer must do all that it reasonably can to:
assess health and safety risks in their workplaces,
set up a safe system of work for their employees, and
make sure that this system is implemented, followed and kept under review.
Does my employer have to take additional steps to protect my health and
safety during the Covid crisis?
Your employer must carry out a risk assessment that is specifically tailored to your workplace and to the particular risks of Covid transmission.
As a minimum, your employer should consider the Government Guidance specific to your sector of work. However, the Guidance does not replace the law on Health & Safety.
Depending on your workplace, following the Guidance alone may not ensure a completely safe system of work. Your employer still needs to assess the specific risks for themselves and take all steps that are reasonable to protect you and others.
A good employer will consult with staff (and unions, where appropriate) to try to reach agreement on a safe system of work in the light of particular risks in their workplace so that staff feel reassured and confident enough to return to work. An employer is required to consult in certain circumstances - for more information, see this Health and Safety Executive link.
I don’t feel safe enough to return to work. Can my employer force me to return?
If it is reasonable for you to return to work (and assuming you are not shielding in line with NHS guidance), your employer may be entitled to treat your refusal to return as unauthorised absence and refuse to pay you. At worst, they may even discipline and dismiss you.
In some circumstances, employees are protected from dismissal or detriment for refusing to return to work.
What can I do if my employer is forcing me to return to an unsafe workplace?
All employees regardless of their length of service are protected from dismissal or detriment if:
they leave, propose to leave, or refuse to return to work in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believes to be serious or imminent; or
take or propose to take steps to protect themselves or others from the danger.
If you are an employee with at least two years’ continuous service and you believe your employer has failed to provide you with a safe system of work, you have the right to resign and claim constructive dismissal.
However, whilst you may have a claim for compensation in these circumstances, it is better to get action taken speedily if possible.
Therefore, the best first step is to raise your return to work concerns with your employer, Health and Safety representative or union, to see if you can agree on a safe system of work. If this does not result in meaningful actions that put your mind at rest, seek legal advice promptly (and especially before taking the extreme step of resigning).
I think my workplace is safe, but I am more concerned about catching coronavirus on my commute to work. What can I do?
The protection against detriment or dismissal may cover you if you refuse to travel to and from work, but this is not certain.
The best first step is to speak to your employer, Health and Safety representative or union about your concerns, to try to agree on a safe way for you to get to work.
Should I put my health and safety concerns in writing?
Yes. It is always sensible to raise your concerns in an email or letter. Explain clearly and in detail why you believe you (or others) are in danger if you return to work. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you should at least follow up any discussions that you have with your employer in writing, to avoid any dispute later about what you said.
What about whistleblowing?
In specific circumstances, a refusal to work or complaints about an unsafe working environment, can be a “protected disclosure” which entitles employees to protection from dismissal and detriment as a whistleblower.
If you believe you have been subjected to a detriment or dismissed because you blew the whistle, you should seek legal advice urgently and within 7 days if possible. Some of the whistleblower protections only last 7 days from the date of dismissal.
I am pregnant. Do I have any specific health and safety rights?
Yes. Pregnant women have been identified as “clinically vulnerable” by the Government. As well as the common law and statutory protections set out above, you have some extra protections in relation to individual risk assessments, alternative duties and even suspension on full pay if the risks to you or your baby’s health can’t be averted. You are also protected under the Equality Act 2010 from unfavourable treatment because of your pregnancy.
I am disabled. Do I have any specific health and safety rights?
Yes. When consulting and deciding on a safe system of work, your employer is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.