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Global HR Lawyers

Face coverings and the workplace

01 October 2020

This article sets out our updated analysis of the current rules regarding face coverings at work and some of the practical issues that arise for employers.

Wallet, keys, face mask, hand sanitiser… The list of items you can’t leave the house without has had a makeover this year. Face coverings have become a ubiquitous sight in our high streets and on public transport, but to make sure they are cemented into our daily routines the government is now doubling down on their use.

From 24 September 2020, much of what was previously guidance on face coverings has now become law, and there are new rules on certain jobs and indoor environments where masks must be worn. What’s more, the financial penalties have become harsher, with fines increasing to £200 for a first offence (reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days), and up to £6,400 for repeat offenders.

Because the coronavirus spreads via droplets from coughs, sneezes and talking, scientific evidence suggests that face coverings could help reduce the spread of the virus. The thinking is that they protect others, rather than the wearer, from Covid-19. The government’s guidance on when and how face coverings should be used was updated on 24 September.

The changing rules prompt questions about employers’ responsibilities when it comes to face coverings. What health and safety obligations do employers have towards employees and visitors? How do they enforce wearing face coverings if people refuse? And how should they protect employees from abusive customers or visitors?

What are the rules on face coverings?

A “face covering” in this context is anything that safely covers the nose and mouth, including reusable or single-use face masks, scarfs, bandanas, religious garments or hand-made cloth coverings.

The rules on face coverings encompass both legal requirements and government guidance. They have changed several times since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and differ throughout the UK, but currently include the following:

  • Shops, supermarkets and shopping centres. Face coverings are mandatory for customers in all parts of the UK.
  • Public transport. Face coverings are mandatory for travellers in EnglandScotlandWales and Northern Ireland. Transport workers are not required by law to wear masks while they are working, although they are advised to do so in situations where social distancing is difficult.
  • Indoor spaces. Face coverings are mandatory for the public in most indoor settings across the UK, from shops to takeaways to places of worship. In England, Scotland and Wales the list of places where you must wear a face mask is very wide, including museums, libraries and community centres. Even in restaurants, bars and cafes, face coverings should only be taken off when you are seated to eat and drink. In Scotland and Wales you’re also expected to wear a mask in the gym. In Northern Ireland, you do not have to wear a face mask in a business that can maintain social distancing using ticketing or appointments, such as a cinema or hairdressers. The government’s general guidance says that face coverings should be worn in indoor places where people will come into contact with others who they don’t normally meet and social distancing may be difficult.

Who is exempt from wearing a face covering?

The government’s guidance provides a non-exhaustive list of people who do not have to wear a face covering. This includes, for instance, people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment or disability and children under 11 years old (or 13 in Northern Ireland, and five in Scotland).

Should employees wear a face covering at work?

Employers have a host of health and safety issues to consider when establishing a safe return to work plan, which include what (if any) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or face coverings they should be providing to employees.

There is an existing legal obligation for employers to provide a safe working environment. In order to comply with that obligation, employers should follow the parts of the government’s coronavirus workplace settings guidance that are relevant for their particular type(s) of workplace. In general, the government encourages social distancing, high standards of hand hygiene, increased surface cleaning and fixed teams as the best ways to manage risk in the workplace, ahead of wearing face masks.

However, staff in retail, leisure and hospitality settings who are likely to come into contact with members of the public must wear face masks. That includes not just shops, restaurants and cafes, but also other public-facing businesses like banks and estate agents. Where there is a physical barrier between workers and members of the public, such as a perspex screen, staff behind the barrier do not have to wear a face covering.

While other employers should not necessarily encourage the precautionary use of PPE, and should not be relying on face coverings as a risk management strategy, they should support employees in their wearing of face coverings (which are not PPE) if they choose to do so. Employers should also bear in mind the government’s general guidance (above) that face coverings should be worn in indoor places where social distancing may be difficult and where they will come into contact with people they do not normally meet. In Wales, indeed, the rules explicitly mandate the use of face coverings in indoor work settings where social distancing cannot be maintained, unless there are strong reasons not to.

What if an employee refuses to wear a face covering after being asked?

An employer may identify as part of its risk assessment that face masks (and/or other forms of PPE) are one of the necessary measures to protect employees and visitors. In other cases, it will be mandatory for face coverings to be worn in the employer’s business (for example, hospitality settings, close-contact services such as hairdressers, beauticians, tailors and fashion designers, or PPE for those working in clinical settings). In either situation, the employer will need to take steps to ensure that the masks and/or PPE are provided and that employees are using them appropriately.

Employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment for employees, and general legal duties of care towards anyone who may be accessing or using their place of business (e.g. visitors or customers). To comply these duties, employers must monitor how employees are behaving and intervene quickly if they are not acting appropriately. 

Employers will generally be vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees, which means that an employer may be liable if someone’s health is damaged due to their employee’s negligent disregard of health and safety rules. (In practice, however, it would be difficult for anyone to show that they contracted Covid-19 because of an employee’s failure to wear a face covering.)

Employers should consider setting up a special process for employees to flag concerns that the health and safety measures are not being observed or are not working. This could include concerns that colleagues are not wearing face masks or PPE when they are supposed to do so. In appropriate cases, after investigation, employers may wish to consider taking disciplinary action.

Employers should, however be careful about introducing and enforcing blanket policies requiring employees to wear face coverings, as they could run the risk of unlawfully discriminating against people who have legitimate reasons for not wearing them. For example, it could be indirect disability discrimination to discipline an employee who suffers from asthma for not wearing a face covering if they are unable to do so because it would prevent them breathing properly. Employers must also make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, which might include allowing an employee with a valid reason to forego wearing a face covering.

There may be exceptional circumstances in which, having undertaken their risk assessment, employers will need to carefully manage how they apply their policies in order to avoid discriminatory outcomes. In above example of a person suffering from asthma, if the employer’s risk assessment had determined face coverings and/or PPE were mandatory for all staff, it would need to conduct a further risk assessment in relation to the asthmatic employee. It might be that the employer would then need to consider implementing additional measures as reasonable adjustments to accommodate any disadvantage suffered by the asthmatic employee - for example, providing a separate working area or other suitable work which could be undertaken remotely.

What if visitors and customers refuse to wear a face covering?

There are certain settings in which members of the public are required to wear face coverings, as set out above. Under the government’s guidance, premises where face coverings are required should “take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law”. That said, the responsibility for forcibly removing non-compliant visitors (who do not have a valid exemption) lies with the police or public transport officials.

Like employees, visitors and customers may have legitimate reasons for not wearing a face covering (for example, on account of their age, health or disability). While some people may feel comfortable showing something to indicate this such as an exemption card, badge or home-made sign, this is not necessary in law and the government guidance states that people should not be routinely asked to provide written evidence of this.

This raises difficult questions about what employers should do in practice to manage the risks posed to employees by visitors who don’t comply with face-covering requirements. They may wish to consider whether there are ways to provide employees with additional protection in this situation, and whether and how they might seek to enforce compliance by customers and customers as part of their duty to protect their staff.

What are employers’ duties to protect staff from being abused over face coverings?

Face coverings have become rather a politicised issue in the UK (although perhaps not to the extent that they have in the United States). People caught unmasked in public are frequently labelled “covidiots”, while the imposition of coverings was deplored by a libertarian sect of the Conservative party as an affront to personal freedoms.

This has unfortunately resulted in people being confronted or harassed over whether they wear a covering, including employees in their workplace. If employers ask their staff to enforce the wearing of face coverings by visitors and customers, they will also need to take steps to protect them from any resulting abuse.

Failure to deal with abuse of employees may be a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence, which could lead to constructive dismissal claims, or a breach of the employer’s duty of care to protect employees’ health and safety. Where abuse by customers is related to an employee’s protected characteristic, such as disability, employers should take account of the detailed guidance produced by the EHRC and respond robustly.

Practical measures that employers could put in place might include providing training to employees – for example, detailing the circumstances in which to call the police to avoid putting themselves in personal danger – and displaying posters warning customers that any harassment or violence towards staff will not be tolerated.

In relation to employees who are exempt from wearing a face covering, and who may be vulnerable to abuse for that reason, employers may wish to discuss whether they would find it helpful to wear exemption badges. 


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