Coronavirus: Can I refuse to go back to work if I think it's unsafe?

People who are unable to work from home have been told they can return to their jobs as part of the Government’s partial easing of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Boris Johnson’s announcement has left many with unanswered questions about what to do if they feel unsafe at their workplace.

ITV News has spoken to Danielle Parsons, a senior employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, about the different courses of action available if you feel unsafe at work.

Q: Can I refuse to go to work if I feel my workplace is unsafe?

A: Yes. The law is very clear on that. If you feel that your workplace is unsafe then you're protected when taking certain actions and one of them could be refusing to attend your place of work, or assuming you've already arrived there, you'd be able to leave.

The law protects you when it comes to your safety and maybe others in that situation. You also shouldn't be subject to any unfair treatment as a result of having taken that kind of action, and you shouldn't be dismissed in relation to that.

Q: If I feel unsafe in my workplace, what should I do?

A: It depends on what the situation is. The first step I would advise the employee to raise their concerns informally with their employer, see what the reaction is, and don’t be afraid to ask them to put their answer in writing to you.

Your employer should listen to your concerns because they’ve got a duty of care towards you and they need to keep you safe at work.

If they don’t respond as you’d hope, what you could do is consider raising a formal grievance or raising health and safety concerns under any health and safety procedure, or any whistleblowing procedures that might take place at work.

It does very much depends on what the situation is.

Commuters wait to board a tram in Manchester. Credit: PA

Q: I use public transport to get to work but I am unable to socially distance on those services. What should I do?

A: People are also having issues getting to work with reduced public transport services. These are quite obvious and serious issues that would impede people getting to work and I think it’s unfortunate the Government has provided quite unclear guidance on what you’re expected to do.

For example, if you’re a single parent with childcare obligations, we’ve seen some really unfortunate stories of mothers who are the sole parent and they’re stuck with children and they’ve been issued unfair ultimatums by their employer, wanting them to attend work on short notice when it’s just not possible.

On the one hand, the guidance seems to be suggesting that everyone who is not attending work but is unable to work from home should return to work, but they haven’t given much guidance to employers and employees about what exactly is expected if they have these difficulties turning up.

Employers have a duty of care towards ensuring their workers are safe. Credit: PA

There is some case law which suggests if your route to work is unsafe then your employer needs to look into that with you and carry out a risk assessment with you in relation to that.

A lot of people will be worried about going to work on public transport because even after lockdown was initially announced, we saw these pictures of overcrowding on Tubes. All of this will be very concerning for people.

Your employer should provide a safe environment for you to work in and if you think you are in danger at work, or indeed I would argue on the way to work, then I think the law does offer you some protection.

Q: I’ve raised concerns about the safety of my workplace to my employer but I’m not satisfied with the outcome, what should I do?

A: If you leave work or take action to protect yourself or others as an employee and you’re dismissed or sanctioned as a result, you’re likely to have a potential employment tribunal claim.

If you’ve raised your issues with your employer, every employee will have to think carefully about 'do I feel safe working here?'.

If the situation is you feel you do have to leave work, there may be some argument around unfair dismissal or unfair treatment, or you’re subjected to some other sanction, or if your employers decided to withhold your pay.

It’s useful we now have guidance, but what employers should be doing is carrying out a risk assessment and putting in place a safer system of working.

If employers aren’t doing this, it could give rise to a criminal offence or a potential employment tribunal claim.

You can also report your employer to the Health and Safety Executive, which enforces health and safety legislation.

What is the HSE's position?

Employers who are unable to introduce adequate measures to protect staff from coronavirus should not reopen their workplaces, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said.

HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said every workplace should carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment before staff return, and that the “vast majority” will be able to implement social distancing and hygiene measures.

But she told Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee on Tuesday that employers who are unable to do so should “individually not open”.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know: