The coronavirus pandemic continues to see more and more frontline workers at risk due to the ongoing lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). There is no more important time for everyone to know, understand and exercise their rights to PPE. So, what, then, are workers’ legal rights?
Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 outlines ‘that it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.’ This clearly provides employees with the right to be safe in their workplace. It is the employer who has the obligation to provide that safe environment. Employees should always be empowered to hold their employer to account if they are failing to comply with their obligation to provide us with a safe workplace.
Does this right to be safe in the workplace extend to an entitlement to PPE?
Yes. As an employee you have a right to PPE where you may be exposed to a health and safety risk. Coronavirus is a health and safety risk.
Regulation 4 of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992, outlines that ‘every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to their employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health and safety while at work, except to the extent that such risks have been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.’
It is not enough that any PPE is provided, but rather it must:
- Be appropriate for the risks that may occur;
- Account for the health of the person wearing it;
- Fit the wearer correctly;
- Be effective in controlling the risk or control the risks involved without increasing the overall risk.
In relation to COVID 19, all workers who come in contact with the general public should be given PPE. However, just because gloves and a mask are provided, this does not necessarily mean your employer has discharged their duty to keep you safe at work. PPE must be effective in controlling the risk. It is extremely unlikely that reusing a surgical mask which may already contain the virus will be effective in controlling the risk. If aprons are not fit for purpose, then they can be considered effective in controlling the risk.
How do I know what PPE I am entitled to?
There is no one size fits all answer to this question. It will vary from each workplace and perhaps even with each person depending on their health. You should check government guidance and with any professional body which regulates the work you do.
S3 of the Health at Safety at Work Regulations 1999 imposes an obligation on employers to make suitable and sufficient assessment into the Health and Safety risks that an employee may be exposed to. As it is very likely that COVID 19 amounts to a significant change in circumstances, an employer should have carried out a new risk assessment to address these.
You are entitled to be told about the new risks to you which have been identified and have sight of all the information the employer is required to keep as virtue of law. This includes the risk assessment itself. The risk assessment is likely to include an assessment of the risk and what steps the employer will take to limit this risk for employees.
By reading a risk assessment you should be aware of the risks to you and have clarity on what equipment you need to keep yourself safe in work.
The risks may include exposure to the virus itself but also changes to working practices (for example, reductions in the number of staff normally allocated to a particular job or changes to the way a job is done to ensure physical distancing.
Should I pay for my PPE?
No. Your entitlement to PPE is by virtue of being a worker. Your employer has no right to charge you for that PPE Unless otherwise stated in your contract of employment, it is an implied term of your contract that your employer will provide you with the necessary PPE to do your job.
So what can you do if your employer continues not to provide you with PPE?
It is likely that you will not be the only employee in your workplace in this situation. You should seek to organise collectively in your workplace (an employee’s greatest strength is in numbers), and immediately engage your trade union representative.
You could draft a letter/email to your manager quoting the legislation outlines above or speak to your employer about your concerns. You can explicitly tell them they are breaching your right to PPE and a safe workplace. Again, collective correspondence is likely to be more powerful than correspondence sent from an individual.
No matter the nature of our jobs, where we work, or what our daily task are, ALL employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workforce. As the pandemic continues and restrictions on workplace are lifted, awareness of these rights and the courage to use them will help individual workers, their families and public health more generally.
If you are an employee who is being forced to attend work during the lockdown, please contact the STUC at
Blog by Lauren Strain, Employment Rights Department