Employment tribunal claims citing health and safety concerns were up three-fold last year, with a law firm warning about a potential increase in claims from employees who were dismissed for refusing to work on Covid-19 grounds.
Some 637 single claims relating to health and safety were lodged with employment tribunals in the 12 months to 31 March 2021, according figures obtained via a freedom of information request by Nockolds Solicitors.
This is a 156% increase on the number of cases that cited health and safety concerns in 2019/20 (248).
The law firm warned that employers could see a surge in claims following the reintroduction of guidance to work from home where possible last month. It said these guidelines “leave much more room for interpretation” than the guidance introduced during the full national lockdowns in 2020 and early 2021.
Government guidance to work from home where possible will end next week, with the Prime Minister today announcing that all ‘Plan B’ measures will be revoked from 27 January, including the requirement to wear face masks in shops and other crowded spaces.
“The [current] guidance [in place until next week] advises employees to work from home if they can but leaves huge wriggle room for employers to argue that in-person working is necessary. This will likely lead to a surge in Covid-related employment disputes on health and safety grounds,” said Gary Smith, a partner at Nockolds.
Health and safety
“Many employers are keen to return to face-to-face working and will feel that the current guidelines give them the latitude to ask employees to be present provided they have taken precautions. Many employees, however, will be reluctant to enter workplaces and the wooliness of the guidelines will make it harder to resolve disputes without the involvement of tribunals.”
According to Nockolds, the most probable tribunal claims employers could see could be from staff who have been dismissed for refusing to work on Covid-related grounds, or from employees who have resigned and claim constructive dismissal, citing an unsafe working environment due to Covid protocols not being properly followed.
Employment tribunals have recently handed down a number judgments in cases that have involved Covid-19 reasons, including a case where a worker was dismissed after raising health and safety concerns and another where an employee refused to attend work because they were worried about catching the virus.
Smith said employers need to be particularly careful about treating employees differently if some decide that they would prefer to continue working from home while the virus remains a threat.
“Overlooking employees for promotions, or awarding lower pay rises or bonuses to those who have refused or expressed a reluctance to return to work for Covid reasons could trigger claims,” he said.
“They should also be careful not to allow bonuses for those who work from home to inadvertently be lower than those in the office.”