Responding to epidemics like Swine Flu or Coronaviruses (like SARS and COVID-19) can become a crisis in itself if your risk management processes are not ready. Here's a helping hand.
With this in mind we've got 8 helpful tips. From dealing with sick employees refusing to stay at home to those afraid to come to work, here's how to safely navigate dealing with a health crisis.
1. Identify those most at risk
In the case of most H&S crises, the groups most likely to be seriously affected include pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with serious pre-existing medical conditions, such as HIV, diabetes, respiratory issues or heart disease.
Due to the sudden onset of a typical health crisis, those at high risk will not be able to preemptively tackle the problem. Instead, they will need to actively take steps to keep themselves safe, such as by working remotely or avoiding using public transport at peak hours.
Employers should take particular care when it comes to pregnant women. When unable to avoid serious risks by other means, pregnant women should be suspended from work on medical grounds (receiving full pay) or given suitable temporary employment for as long as need be. If the suspension period carries on into the fourth week before expected childbirth, then maternity leave will commence.
2. Manage travel risks and complications
At the start of a health crisis, travel restrictions are often implemented, invariably resulting in expats and tourists being stranded. If this happens to one of your employees, the easiest solution is to have them work remotely until they are able to return to work. However, if this isn't possible, it would be reasonable to continue paying their salary until they return or ask them to take the time as annual leave. Whatever you choose to do in such a complex situation, you must make sure you treat all employees equally.
As an employer, you have every right to forbid work-related travel to affected areas. However, if you forbid them to travel there for personal reasons, you could be putting yourself at risk of indirect racial discrimination, particularly if you are discouraging certain employees from visiting their country of origin.
3. Take appropriate precautions
As an employer, it is your duty to ensure all of your employees are working in a safe and healthy environment. Consider taking these simple yet effective precautions in your workplace. Just remember 'RESCUE':
- Remote-working - Allow staff at high risk to work remotely.
- Environment - Ensure that all frequently-touched areas are cleaned often and thoroughly, particularly desk surfaces, door handles, kitchens, phones, keyboards, toilets and showers.
- Safe distance - Encourage staff to remain at least one metre away from one another where possible. Discourage work-related gatherings such as group meetings, team sports or social events.
- Cleanliness - Provide staff with hand sanitizer and tissues, and encourage their frequent use.
- Unwell - Reduce the likelihood of infections spreading, and the impact on those already suffering minor illnesses by sending home anyone who is unwell immediately.
- Education - Distribute relevant online and offline information, policies and advice including emails, handouts, posters and even bespoke training, whilst trying to avoid causing panic.
4. Encourage employees to be vaccinated
For outbreaks with an available vaccine, making all of your staff get vaccinated might seem like the simplest solution. Preemptive vaccinations for illnesses like flu are often relatively inexpensive, yet frequently overlooked.
However, it's a bit more complex than that, since while a company contract might detail that particular vaccinations are obligatory, in practice it is illegal to force a vaccination upon someone. If an employee refuses, it would be best to have a private discussion with them in order to see what suitable adjustments can be made, instead of threatening disciplinary action.
5. Dealing with sick pay
Whether or not employees are entitled to sick pay during such pandemics depends on the contents of their employment contract. A typical UK contract includes statutory sick pay, but you may choose to extend sick pay to those not contractually entitled, to discourage them from returning to work while still sick, mitigating the risk that they might infect other employees.
In the case of employees who have been told to stay home after returning from a high risk area, they should be paid as usual if they are able to work remotely. However, if they are unable to do so, you should seriously consider paying them their full salary anyway, since even though they are well enough to work, you are specifically requesting them to stay at home.
6. Dealing with employees who refuse to come to work
Employers should not underestimate the psychological effects that a health crisis can have on certain members of staff, who may be afraid to come to work until everything is back to normal. It goes without saying that you need to tread lightly in such situations. If you allow concerned employees to work remotely, make sure that you reserve the right to require their presence in the workplace at short notice - otherwise you might find yourself short of staff.
Be careful about threatening disciplinary action though, since if an employee is genuinely afraid of coming into work, the stress of having to choose between their health and their job security may itself make them ill. What's more, if an employee is fired after raising a genuine and unexaggerated health and safety concern, they could potentially take legal action against the company for unfair dismissal.
7. Don't indirectly discriminate!
As an employer, it is your responsibility to avoid direct and indirect racial discrimination both on your part and on the part of your employees. In order to avoid legal action, employers need to ensure that they take "all reasonable steps" to stamp out workplace racism. Such measures can include having well-publicised diversity and harassment policies, and providing staff with appropriate equality and diversity training.
You should also be wary of issuing an outright travel ban to a particular country, or of asking staff of a particular nationality or ethnicity to stay at home, regardless of whether this is on a paid or unpaid basis. All such measures should always be in relation to risk management and must apply to all employees equally.
8. Keep communication channels open and up-to-date
Whatever you choose to do in times of crisis, it is essential to keep in mind that communication is vital. Make sure you are clear when communicating all company-wide precautions and solutions to minimise all possible risks. Additionally, you'll need to ensure you clear up enough space in your schedule to deal with concerned employees on a one-to-one basis in order to avoid unnecessary litigation and maintain a positive and understanding workplace culture.
Like all areas of risk management, the key is planning. You cannot avoid such crises, but you can mitigate the effects by creating and actioning an effective set of communication, policies and procedures.
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