Extra precautions need to be taken by employers to protect themselves, their staff and their clients during the swine flu pandemic, but these do not need to be complex, explain Gagandeep Prasad and Emilie Bennetts
I'm getting really worried about swine flu. What do I need to do to protect my employees and clients?
Employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act and must take steps to ensure employees' health is not put at risk unnecessarily. Extra precautions should, therefore, be taken during the swine flu pandemic, but these do not need to be complex.
Simple precautions include ensuring staff are aware of hygiene issues, such as frequent hand washing, to minimise the risk of spreading the disease.
A risk assessment should be undertaken to consider whether any factors make your employees particularly vulnerable to infection. Review hygiene practices and improve on these if needed, for example, install disinfecting hand gels and ensure that the workplace is adequately ventilated.
Employers have an additional duty of care towards employees at increased risk due to pregnancy or underlying medical conditions. Employers should take their cue from the Government's official advice, at the same time as undertaking an individual risk assessment for such employees.
Current official advice is that pregnant employees should "carry on life as normal" and thus continue using public transport and going into work. This advice may change in the autumn if the number of cases rises dramatically, in which case pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems may be advised to stay at home for a few weeks.
Monitor medical advice carefully and, in the meantime, it is good practice to give consideration to requests from such employees to work from home, if possible, or to work shifts that would allow them to commute outside the rush hour.
- Information: assign one person/team with the responsibility for monitoring official Government guidance and communicating this.
- Sickness and absence policy: review the contents and consider adding bespoke swine flu Q&A documents. The policy should explain how the employer will deal with someone who has flu-like symptoms at work or who has been exposed to someone who has, or may have, these symptoms. Decide how any such absence will be treated (paid or unpaid) and review any return-to-work procedures.
- Environment: it is important to promote a working environment where staff who do feel unwell are not afraid to tell their line managers immediately. Staff should be told to go home until they are better, as there are risks with encouraging employees to "work through it" in terms of the spread of the disease to employees and customers. Employees must know who to contact in the event that they are ill, and how long they should stay at home for.
- Fear: the issue of what to do about those employees who are not ill but are too scared to come into work for fear of the risks, or those who are not genuinely sick but taking unauthorised sickness absence, is more complicated. These issues must be handled carefully and should only be treated as a disciplinary issue where it is reasonable to do so. Take legal advice if in doubt.
- Plan now: update your disaster recovery plan. If the illness develops, significant parts of your workforce could be absent. Ensure you have emergency contact details of key staff. Update and circulate contact information for all staff.
- Consider investing in technology so as many key employees as possible can work from home if necessary. Can IT systems cope with large numbers of people working remotely? Consider options for other communication instead of face-to-face meetings.
- If employees are willing to work longer hours because of absences, ensure that the provisions of the Working Time Regulations in relation to rest breaks, weekly working hours etc are complied with.
- Review and update polices such as those dealing with travel, flexible working and dependent leave.