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Health and safety is number one task to get SMEs back to work

A LEADING legal firm is urging business owners to make sure they are up to date on

legislation after a poll revealed health and safety as the number one challenge to getting

staff back to work as lockdown eases.


With thousands of people set to head back to work as restrictions are gradually lifted,

company bosses and individual workers are being advised to make sure they fully

understand their legal obligations - and the consequences of failing to comply.


A poll of SMEs across the UK conducted by the UK200Group, an organisation which

represents the country’s leading law and accountancy firms, shows that health and

safety is the number one challenge among those businesses.



Of 550 respondents to the poll, carried out recently, more than 50 per cent said health

and safety - including social distancing, PPE, and safety of customers and staff - was

their biggest challenge in getting back to work.


Cartmell Shepherd Solicitors, the only law firm member of the UK200Group in Cumbria

and Northumberland, said the poll highlights why employers need to make sure they are

up to date on what is legally required.


Carol Fish, a Director of Cartmell Shepherd, who has over 25 years experience in

dealing with serious and catastrophic injury cases including those in the workplace said:


“Keeping everyone safe is clearly the number one issue for businesses when it comes

to getting back to work.


“It’s vitally important that business owners know the law around ensuring they are doing

everything they can to keep people safe.”


If business owners fail to take necessary steps and one of their team, or their visitors

was to become ill with COVID-19, and could trace it back to the workplace. those

affected could potentially sue the business owner.


Under common law, an employer is responsible for providing a safe place to work, a

safe system of work, and adequate equipment for the job. Failure to do so can lead to

claims of negligence.


Under statutory law, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, sets out employers’

statutory duties to provide a safe working environment which is properly maintained and

where operations within it are conducted safely. That Act would be subject to the

interpretation of more recent legislation namely the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Act 2013.


There are also a number of EU Directives and Regulations that apply.

For example the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at Work Regulations 1992

places a mandatory duty on every employer to ensure that suitable personal protective

equipment is provided to protect employees and it must be effective to prevent or

control the risk.


Breach of regulations that apply can also result in personal criminal responsibility which

can apply to managers as well as employers.


As workers start to head back to work as the COVID-19 restrictions gradually ease,

many will be going into workplaces which were not built or designed with social

distancing in mind. Employers will need to rethink how they operate safely going

forward.


Employers and staff are also having to digest new social distancing regulations which

are among the measures set out in the government guidelines on “Working safely

during COVID-19”, applicable to a range of sectors and settings including offices, which

was published recently.


Carol said: “It’s obviously a very anxious time for everyone at the moment and there’s a lot of information for people to take in about how to stay safe in the workplace.


“This is on top of their concern about their own health and the health of their family,

friends, work colleagues and customers.


“It’s really important that everyone familiarises themselves with the relevant legislation.


“It’s also important that employers realise the consequences of failing to comply which

could lead to claims of negligence and breach of statutory duty.


“In cases where breaches are proved, should someone contract the disease and be left

with long-term ill health issues or even die, this would lead to potentially high value

claims against them.


“We would advise businesses to make sure they are taking their responsibilities

seriously in these areas.


“It’s very important that they are carrying out thorough risk assessments and recording

all the actions they are taking to keep everyone safe.


“They should also review their employer’s liability insurance cover to see if they have, or

can obtain, cover for such claims. This is something which their insurance brokers

should be able to help them with.”


Employers and individuals might also want advice in a situation where an employee

may be refusing to come back to work if they are concerned that they may be at risk, in

which case the Employment Rights Act 1996 would be important legislation to be aware

of.


Carol said: “We are trying to share as much information as we can on legislation and

the latest regulations and guidelines to help people to make informed decisions.


“But we understand that the legislation can be complex and that there’s an overlapping

of the laws in some areas relating to employers’ liability in the workplace.


“With larger employers, it might be advisable to seek help from a Health and Safety

consultant and there are companies out there who can help risk assess your workplace

and advise on the practical steps you need to take.”


According to the UK200Group poll, the next biggest challenges for SMEs, after health

and safety, are managing cash flow (45 per cent), getting customers to buy (41 per cent), and clarity on measures and how they apply to that individual business (35 per

cent).

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