face masks in the workplace

September 27th, 2023

As the government continues to signal the green light for society to return to normal (whatever ‘normal’’ now is), many businesses are also eager to return to their pre-pandemic heyday.  For some organisations there may be a sudden shift after the ‘work from home if you can’ guidance gets scrapped and for other organisations those measures that have restricted their businesses may no longer be required.

All restrictions are expected to ease on 19 July which (at the time of writing) include measures relating to social distancing and face masks as we are told that the use of face coverings will be a personal decision. However certain businesses may continue to encourage the use of face masks in the workplace.

This is not an easy tight rope for businesses to tiptoe along.  Many yearn for the BC (‘before corona’) world and this will undoubtedly facilitate the reopening or progress of business.  On the flip side some employees remain understandably concerned, particularly as the R number is currently on the rise.   So should organisations allow employees and customers to ditch the mask or should measures remain in place with face masks at work?

The primary obligation of any organisation is always to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers and visitors.  For the last year strict guidance was issued in relation to a raft of measures to include social distancing, PPE, hygiene standards and ventilation.  Whilst covid-secure risk assessments will still be a feature for the months ahead, the voluminous documents can now be slimmed down. A balance needs to be found to secure safety without unduly stifling business.

Since we were first thrown into lockdown in March 2020, the government have produced no fewer than 14 separate documents issuing workplaces with covid secure instructions.  These are likely to go through the shredder any day now to be replaced with a slim-line version of guidance going forward.  Commentators are predicting that employers will soon be given far greater discretion to decide on safe working conditions including the use of face masks in the workplace.  ACAS are also poised to issue guidance for employers in relation to an expected increase in requests to continue working from home and cater for the post pandemic workplace.   Watch this space for regular didlaw blogs keeping you abreast of developments.

The coming days and months will present further head-scratching moment for businesses, especially those in retail and hospitality.

Key advice will be to consult and engage with staff about changing measures that have been put in place to minimise the spread of coronavirus.  Even if most are happy to return to the good old days of 2019, many won’t be and understanding the reasons for this will be important.  What if the employee is clinically vulnerable or a relative they live with has health concerns? What if some workers refuse to return if others are no longer wearing face masks in the workplace and do not respect social distancing advice? How should HR respond if two employees disagree on the way forward?

In response to the government announcement to release restrictions last week, Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, expressed concern stressing that “Ministers must consult with unions and employers on clear and consistent guidance for workplace safety after the end of restrictions, in every type of workplace.  Otherwise we risk widespread confusion.” 

On the topic of face coverings Ms O’Grady added “in particular, ministers must consult with unions and employers before making any changes to the guidance on face coverings in sectors where they currently must be worn, such as retail. 

“The government has to take the lead – not wash its hands of its responsibility to keep workers and the public safe.”

If employers don’t get these things right they could have issues on their hands which may present an increased risk of grievances, employment tribunal claims and positive Covid cases.  The coming months will be a huge test for them.  

This blog is by Caroline Oliver, Senior Solicitor at Didlaw

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