Face Coverings in the Workplace: Employer Obligations

August 24, 2020


The debate over compulsory use of face coverings at work continues, as France has announced that coverings must be worn in all enclosed workplaces – including offices. But what are employers’ current safety obligations in workplaces in the UK?

Based on the current UK and Welsh Government guidance, it is unlikely that face coverings will be made compulsory in offices or other private workplaces in the near future. Although they are currently mandatory on public transport in both England and Wales and for shoppers in England, there is no obligation on employees to wear them outside of certain settings (such as medical facilities).

While not obligatory, employers do have the discretion to ask their staff to wear face coverings in situations where an acceptable physical distance from each other (currently 2 metres in Wales and 1 metre plus in England) cannot be maintained. Government guidance advises, but does not require, this to happen in workplaces such as hair and beauty salons and other “close contact settings”.

Rachel Ford-Evans outlines some key measures for employers to consider regarding staff safety in the workplace:

  1. Carry out, and write down, a risk assessment into the particular risks that arise in your workplace in relation to COVID-19. For example, are staff required to work closer to each other than 1 or 2 metres? Is there a way of avoiding this, such as spacing out workstations or bringing staff into work on a rota basis rather than all at once?

  2. If it is not possible for staff to stay distanced from each other, consider asking them to wear face coverings. This could either just be while they are working close together or in close proximity to customers, or at all times. Employers should be prepared to provide suitable face coverings (such as masks) for this purpose. You should also set out “rules” in relation to how they should be worn, the need for reusable coverings to be washed regularly, and the fact that face coverings do not replace the need for good hand hygiene and physical distancing.

  3. Keep the needs of your individual employees in mind. Some staff will ask to be exempted from the requirement to wear face coverings. This may be because of a physical health condition such as asthma, or a mental health condition such as anxiety. You should be prepared to make adjustments for those suffering from mental ill health as well as physical.

  4. If your risk assessment concludes that it should be possible for staff to stay apart from each other (and from customers or clients) at all times, there is no need to ask them to wear face coverings. However, if you have some staff who ask if they are allowed to do so anyway, you should permit this unless there is a particular health and safety or business reason why it is not possible.

  5. Continue to consult the relevant Government guidance for your industry, as the guidance is different in some areas for different sectors. Be prepared for the possibility of having to make face coverings compulsory at some point, should Government guidance and requirements change.




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