Last night, the prime minister encouraged workers who can’t work from home and who don’t work in industries that are closed down to return to work.
This announcement took unions and employers by surprise – and it poses a serious threat to workers’ safety.
So what are workers’ rights to refuse to work if they are worried?
Above all: all workers have a right to be safe at work, wherever they work and whatever they do. Coronavirus does not change this.
Employers must do a risk assessment
There are existing laws which already protect workers.
It's a legal requirement, under the Health and Safety at Work Regulations Act 1974, for bosses to carry out a workplace risk assessment. Employers must also take the actions that come from their risk assessment.
These will include enabling working from homewhere possible, ensuring good hygiene and cleanliness, and making sure workers can be at least two metres apart at all times. Where these actions don’t mitigate the risk, workers may need personal protective equipment.
Employers must also enable extremely vulnerable workers in the shielded category to observe NHS advice, and protect other vulnerable or pregnant workers. Further government guidance is expected in the coming days.
If you are worried about safety at work
The first thing to do is to talk to your workmates and your union if you have concerns about safety in your workplace. You should ask your employer to rectify the issues you’re worried about.
The actions HSE can take against employers refusing to follow guidance range from issuing advice to closing workplaces and prosecuting bosses.
If after raising your concerns there is still a serious or imminent danger, you and your colleagues have the right to leave work. The relevant law is Section 44 of the Employment Act 1996 and it covers all workers, including agency or self-employed workers.
The law says:
“(d) in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work, or
(e) in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent, he took (or proposed to take) appropriate steps to protect himself or other persons from the danger.
It is important that you seek advice and support on taking action.
You need to raise concerns with your union and employer first. Make sure you communicate your actions and reasons clearly to your employer and make a careful record of what happened, and get in touch with your health and safety rep or union officer.
They will be able to advise on practical steps, get legal help, and make the demand for safe working a collective one – taking the onus off you as an individual.
If you leave work because of a serious or imminent danger, you cannot be sacked.
The same section of law also protects you from being victimised if, after raising concerns and seeking advice, the danger persistsand you decide to leave work. Your boss cannot legally dismiss, discipline, or dock your pay.
You are also protected from detriment for asserting your right to safety under Section 29 of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993.
You are not alone
If you are considering refusing to work because of a serious and imminent danger, know that you are not alone. Workers in libraries, the postal service and waste collection have already walked off the job over coronavirus exposure concerns.
Be aware, though: all those who have acted have done so with the advice and support of their union.
You need to be able to demonstrate that you have a ‘reasonable belief of serious or imminent danger’. Your union will be able to advise on your specific situation.