Employers could face legal threat if workers return and catch Covid-19, expert warns

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Employers UK could risk facing legal action from employees who return to work and contract the Covid-19 virus, a health and safety expert has warned.

Professor Andrew Watterson, of the University of Stirling, questioned whether adequate procedures and resources are in place to identify and investigate all work-related illnesses and deaths linked to the virus, specifically in non-health or social care settings.

In such cases, employees and their families may not have the Covid-19 link recognised or compensated – which could, in turn, lead to civil court action, he warned.

Professor Watterson called for further evidence and clarity from the government on exactly how its “test, trace and isolate” approach will protect workers, especially when untested workers may be asymptomatic.

He also re-emphasised the “critical” importance of the use of appropriate personal protective equipment and two-metre social distancing.

Professor Watterson leads the Occupational and Environmental Research Group based within the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport.

His concerns have been outlined in a paper published in the journal New Solutions and in a separate letter, published as a BMJ Rapid Response.

There had also been a lack of research on the impact and potential impact of the virus on many workers who are not employed in health or social care, such as those working in shops, construction, food processing, transport and small businesses.

Professor Watterson said it was critical for employers and regulators to engage with workers and their representatives on health and safety issues linked to the virus.

“Employers have a duty to report occupational diseases. However, Covid-19 is not yet classified as an occupational disease under the Prescribed Industrial Diseases scheme, which would generate workers’ compensation,” he said.

“Under current legislation, incidents where a worker is exposed, or possibly exposed, to Covid-19 is reported to the Health and Safety Executive under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013.

“There are concerns that occupational COVID-19 cases will not be reported, and those that are may not be fully investigated, recognised or compensated for.

“At a later date, there could be civil actions in the courts by employees who contracted the virus at work, or by their families, if fatalities occurred,” he added.

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