The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for regulating and enforcing safety in the workplace. Following the tragic death of Donna Coleman, a teacher who worked at Burnley College, the University and College Union (UCU) raised Covid-19 health and safety concerns with the college and the HSE.
Background and the HSE’s findings
The HSE conducted an investigation and found that the college had broken health and safety legislation in relation to Covid failings. Its findings were detailed in a letter dated 26 April 2022 published by the UCU.
Ms Coleman, who worked with vulnerable students at Burnley College, died aged 42 in January 2021 after testing positive for Covid 19 on 14 December 2020. It is reported that Ms Coleman had been required to share a ‘relatively small’ office with two other colleagues which “didn’t allow for social distancing” and the only ventilation was a window ‘which relied on the confidence of employees to open the window during the winter months’.
The HSE also had sight of a photo which showed members of staff including Ms Coleman standing “side by side” at a meeting and video footage of a Christmas party held by the college in which persons were not socially distancing.
Ultimately the HSE held that the college had failed to ensure, so far as reasonably practicably, the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. This was on the basis that they had not implemented necessary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 such as:
- Failing to meet social distancing requirements;
- Failing to inform close contacts of positive covid cases;
- Failing to monitor and enforce the wearing of face coverings.
The letter of the HSE details that Burnley College are required to pay a fee as a consequence of their contravention of health and safety laws.
Implication for employers
Although the HSE report was ‘inconclusive’ on whether Ms Coleman contracted the virus at work, employers would be well advised to consider this tragic case as a stark reminder of the importance of their obligations in relation to workplace safety.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 confirms that it is the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. In order for an employer to discharge such duties, they must ensure they take steps to consider how they might minimise risks such as Covid-19.
Employers should take care to ensure any rules are properly implemented and staff are adequality trained to ensure compliance with such rules. If an employer finds that an employee is breaching any such health and safety rules they should ensure they follow up with appropriate action in line with their disciplinary procedure.
Whilst there is no longer a requirement for employers to explicitly consider Covid-19 in their health and safety risk assessment (save for sectors whose employees work with Covid-19), we would recommend that employers continue to undertake risk assessments to minimise the risk as far as possible.
The current guidance maintains that employers should control health and safety risks though cleaning, ventilation and welfare facilities and that they may still wish to consider the needs of more vulnerable employees who are at higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
Contact our employment team for legal advice on health and safety obligations tin your workplace.