The coronavirus pandemic put vast numbers of frontline workers at risk due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). While the immediate threat in relation to COVID-19 may have passed, it is still important for everyone to know, understand and exercise their rights to PPE.
If you have been affected by the coronavirus crisis and lack of PPE, we are here to help. Talk to Thompsons today for information about your rights to a safe place to work.
The Health and Safety at Work Act
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 a safe workplace.
Does my right to a safe workplace mean I'm entitled to PPE?
Firstly, in most circumstances, PPE should be seen as the last line of defence when all other controls and measures for keeping staff safe have been put in place. However, as an employee you have a right to PPE in circumstances where you may be exposed to a health and safety risk. Coronavirus is a health and safety risk.
Making the workplace safe includes providing instructions, procedures, training and supervision to encourage people to work safely and responsibly and to use and maintain their PPE correctly.
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".'
The PPE provided 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 came into contact with the general public should have been given PPE. However, just because gloves and a mask were provided, this does not necessarily mean your employer fully discharged their duty to keep you safe at work as any PPE provided must be effective in controlling the risk.
It is extremely unlikely that reusing a surgical mask which may already contain the virus will have been effective in controlling the risk. If aprons were not fit for purpose, then they almost certainly cannot be considered effective in controlling the risk.
How do I know what PPE I am entitled to?
There is no standard 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.
Section 3 of the Health at Safety at Work Regulations 1999 imposes an obligation on employers to make suitable and sufficient assessments of the Health and Safety risks that an employee may be exposed to. As it is very likely that COVID-19 amounted to a significant change in circumstances, an employer should have carried out a new risk assessment to address these risks.
You are entitled to be told about any new risks identified and have sight of all the information your employer is required to keep as virtue of law. This includes the risk assessment itself which should include:
- an identification of the hazards
- who might be harmed
- an evaluation of the risk
- the steps the employer will take to control the risk – e.g. providing PPE
The risk assessment should clearly make you, as a worker, aware of the risks to you. It should provide clarity on what equipment is required to keep you and those around you safe at work. In relation to the coronavirus pandemic, the risks may have included exposure to the virus itself but also changes to working practices (for example, reductions in the number of staff normally allocated to carry out a particular job or changes to the way a job was done to ensure physical distancing.)
I was asked to pay for my PPE, is this right?
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.
What should I do if my employer didn't or won't provide PPE?
If the provision of PPE is an ongoing concern, 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.
Ongoing basic duty of care
No matter the nature of our jobs, where we work, or what our daily tasks are, employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workforce. As the pandemic restrictions on workplaces have lifted, a more general awareness of these rights and the courage to enforce them will help individual workers, their families, and public health in the long term.
If you are an employee who was forced to attend work during the lockdown and you have concerns about whether you were adequately protected then or are being protected from ongoing risks now, you can Talk to Thompsons by calling 0800 0891 331.