UK: Swine Flu: An Overview For Employers

Last Updated: 29 September 2009
Article by Gagandeep Prasad and Emilie Bennetts

Originally Published in July 2009

The Problem

Recent news reports from the Department of Health (DoH) confirmed that there were 100,000 new cases of swine flu last week. With many experts predicting that the Autumn will bring high levels of cases, the issue of how to cope with swine flu in the workplace is becoming increasingly relevant. What do employers need to do to protect their employees as well as their clients?

The Law

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. Consider refresher training for staff as a way to control any panic and to emphasise key messages.

A risk assessment should be undertaken to consider whether any factors make your employees particularly vulnerable to infection. In the leisure and hospitality industry where a high level of contact between people is usual, this is of greater importance. Review hygiene practices and improve on these if needed, for example, install disinfecting hand gels and ensure that the workplace is adequately ventilated. Other useful tips are to increase cleaning facilities to include regular and thorough cleaning of hard surfaces, particularly door handles and phones, and putting up signs to remind employees and visitors of their responsibilities with regard to extra hygiene precautions.

Employers have an additional duty of care towards those employees who are at increased risk of contracting swine flu due to pregnancy or otherwise have underlying medical conditions. This is a sensitive issue and 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 rush-hour time. Employers are under a duty to undertake risk assessments for pregnant employees in any event so swine flu specific risk assessments can be built into these.

Expert Advice

  • Information: assign one person/a team with the responsibility for monitoring official Government guidance and communicating this.
  • Sickness and absence policy – review the contents. Some employers are finding that bespoke swine flu Q&A documents are helpful for employees to refer to. 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 and potential claims from employees if they do become unwell. Employees must know who to contact in the event that they are ill, and how long they should stay at home for. This will have the added benefit of reassuring healthy employees that going in to work is relatively safe.
  • 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 who are not genuinely sick but are taking unauthorised sickness absence, is more complicated. Ensuring awareness of the medical facts and the latest DoH guidelines should help to minimise this. 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 you are in doubt.

To do checklist

  • 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 and 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 methods of communication instead of face to face meetings.
  • If employees are wiling to work longer hours because of absences, ensure that the provisions of the Working Time Regulations in relation to rest breaks, opt out of the limit on weekly working hours etc are complied with.
  • Update and review polices such as those dealing with Travel, Flexible working and Dependent leave.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Gagandeep Prasad
Emilie Bennetts
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