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Face coverings in the workplace

The Prime Minister has confirmed that as part of the next stage of the roadmap out of lockdown (step 4), people will no longer be legally required to wear face coverings.  The decision on whether to move to step 4 is to be made next week, but with “Freedom Day” still expected to arrive on 19 July 2021, what does this mean for employers with regard to face coverings?

Personal choice?

The World Health Organisation has advised that face coverings should remain mandatory on public transport, in shops and crowded places.  It is expected that whilst rules and regulations will be removed in England, guidance will be published.

In relation to face coverings, it is expected that guidance will suggest where people may choose to wear a face covering, especially when cases are rising and where people come into contact with those they don’t usually meet in enclosed or crowded spaces.

Whilst the detail is awaited, it seems that there will be a personal choice for individuals as to whether or not to “mask up”.

Duty to protect

Employers are under a duty to provide a safe working environment for their employees. In general, and also in the context of COVID-19, this will mean that employers should routinely carry out a health and safety risk assessment in order flush out and mitigate risks.

The guidance for employers is expected to be updated however it is unclear whether the guidance in relation to face coverings will apply to all workplace settings.

As a starting point, businesses should carry out an updated COVID-19 secure risk assessment and then take account of the updated guidance when doing so.

No such ‘one size fits all’ solution

As ever, businesses will need to tailor their approach to their specific workplace and risks.  If the changes go ahead as planned, then employers will need a good reason to require employees to continue wearing face coverings and this should be based on an updated risk assessment in conjunction with the updated guidance.

Of course, the views of staff and also customers can form part of this decision-making process.  Communication is key, and a constructive dialogue with staff can feed into risk assessments and decisions.  If employers decide that they want staff to continue wearing masks to maintain public confidence or for health and safety reasons, in most cases they will be able to continue mandating it.

Employees may decide that they want to continue to wear masks even though it is no longer mandatory, and some employers may want some or all of their employees to do so for various reasons.  This is why a dialogue is so important.

Employers should aim to achieve a balance between the safety of employees and the needs of the business. Ultimately a policy should be put in place, or any existing policy amended, to take account of these changes and the reasons for the decisions taken should be documented. This should also take into account other measures put in place aside from face coverings as appropriate, to mitigate against any risks highlighted.

If you have any queries relating to COVID-19 employment implications or any other Employment Law or HR queries, please do not hesitate to contact our Employment team on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.

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