Employers have a legal duty to their employees under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and well-being of their employees.

This duty includes a duty to take reasonable care for their safety and avoid exposing them to unnecessary risk. 

Therefore, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, your duty as an employer is to take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce the transmission of the virus to the lowest level possible within the workplace.

So what therefore are my duties in respect of personal protective equipment (“PPE”)?

The government guidance in terms of employees coming back to the workplace is currently as follows:

  1. If you can still work from home then continue to do so.
  2. If however you cannot work from home (either because of operational reasons or because your home environment prevents home working) you can look to return to work but if possible maintain social distancing (keeping people 2 metres apart).
  3. Where social distancing is not possible, because of the very nature of the work or the layout of the workplace, further guidance and proposed mitigating steps is then provided.

In order to ascertain what appropriate steps and protective measures can be taken to enable employees back to the workplace, employers need to undertake a specific COVID-19 Risk Assessment.

Whether or not you therefore need to provide PPE to your employees in the light of COVID-19 will very much be dependent upon the outcome of that risk assessment and whether that assessment concludes that PPE is required.

The guidance from both the government and the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) is very much that PPE in the light of COVID-19 is to some extent a last resort where all other mitigating steps or measures cannot be taken. The emphasis is that in any event PPE such as face masks, gloves or aprons should be used in conjunction with other measures to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus within the workplace.

The guidelines produced by the HSE and the government do not currently recommend the use of PPE in response to COVID-19 outside of clinical settings, other than in a limited number of circumstances. Examples of these circumstances include where there have been possible or confirmed cases of the virus, where social distancing is difficult to maintain such as in education settings, police and justice, and where housing association/residential support and social workers are coming into close contact with the public.

Who has to provide PPE to my employees?

If as a result of your risk assessment you decide that PPE is required as a control measure to prevent the transmission of the virus, you will need to provide it free of charge to your employees.

The law surrounding health and safety at work also requires that you:

  • Provide PPE that is appropriate for the risk and conditions of use.
  • Ensure that the PPE fits correctly and is suitable for the user and if it is to be used alongside other items of PPE, that it is suitable.
  • Use PPE that is effective in controlling the risk that it is intended to address i.e to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.
  • Ensure that the PPE is compliant with any minimum standards required of it by law.
  • Maintain, replace and safely store the PPE.
  • Provide information and training to your employees on its proper use.
  • Introduce a safe system of work for the use of the PPE.

What should I do if my employees choose to wear face coverings?

Face coverings have been distinguished from PPE and those face masks that are used within a clinical setting.

The government guidance states that face coverings are not required to be provided by employers to their employees, but that they can be worn in circumstances where social distancing is not possible.

Employers are recommended to allow employees to use them and support them to do so.

Many employees returning to work will chose to adopt the use of face coverings in work or certainly for commuting to and from work, in which case the guidance is that employers introduce arrangements to manage their employee’s safe use of face coverings in the workplace, including arrangements for safe disposal.

In these circumstances, employers should give support and guidance to their employees to:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer before putting a face covering on, and after removing it.
  • When wearing a face covering, avoid touching your face or face covering, as you could contaminate them with germs from your hands.
  • Change your face covering if it becomes damp or if you have touched it.
  • Continue to wash your hands regularly.
  • Change and wash your face covering daily.
  • If the material is washable, wash in line with manufacturer’s instructions; if it is not washable, dispose of it carefully in the usual way.
  • Practice social distancing wherever possible.

Should you require any further advice or guidance in respect of the provision of PPE to your employees, or should you have any other health and safety queries, please do not hesitate to contact the team at Prettys.

Louise Plant
Senior Associate