Latest News and Views

By Spencers Solicitors

  Lynn Collins    
  July 27, 2020

Should office workers be made to wear face masks?

In something of a surprise U-turn, the government announced last week (14 July) that it will be mandatory to wear a face mask in shops in England after 24 July, prompting much furore over whether shop workers could reasonably be expected to help the police enforce this.

At the same time, Downing Street said it would keep the guidance on face coverings in other settings, such as offices, under review, with conflicting messages from different ministers on this then ensuing- People Management Health secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News the government has no plans to make people wear face coverings in offices. However, environment secretary George Eustice said he hadn't ruled out the idea of telling people to cover their faces in offices and other workplaces, according to The Telegraph.

Medical Mask

The most up-to-date government guidance states that everyone should still work from home where possible, and that the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak. However, there are some views that state that the wearing of facemasks could actually help to re-open offices, something which would support the governments most recent plans to get people back to work as soon as this week in an attempt to encourage the economic prosperity of town centres.

Clearly, from a health and safety perspective it makes sense to wear masks where social distancing cannot be adhered to, but with little or no legal back up to support this, what challenges does this pose to business owners?

Who provides? It is also inevitable that if this is enforced by the employer, then there will be an expectation that the masks are provided for employees, rather than relying on staff to bring their own. For companies who employee hundreds of staff, this could quickly turn into a financial burden that no company needs at a time when costs are already needing to be lowered in order to survive.

Compliance? The standards of any mask provided by the employer would need to be compliant with the guidance, and decisions made on how many masks will be issued to staff on a daily basis, and how will these be disposed of?

Who Polices? There will also be issues to overcome regarding enforcement, particularly where employers share a building with others. If adapted, workplaces would need to be clear on who is going to take responsibility to getting this rolled out, and whether there would be certain stipulations on how long is reasonable to make someone wear a mask for, if social distancing cannot be achieved.

With current guidance still that staff should work from home if they can, many employers are reportedly reluctant to return employees to the office in a way that would contravene official government guidance. Indeed, many have said staff will be working from home until at least the end of the year, while others – such as Twitter and Shopify – have made bold statements around staff being allowed to work from home potentially forever now that home working has been proved to be such a success.

With 38% of workers believing that lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health, could this be the leverage they require to make them feel safer to return to work?

One thing putting people off going back to work is the feeling that the world outside their home isn’t safe. If masks help give people a greater sense of safety, then this could be the incentivisation that employers can use to encourage rather than discourage employees to return to work.

However, others feel mandatory face mask wearing could be yet another reason putting employers off returning staff to offices any time soon. Why after all suffer uncomfortably in a mask all day, with colleagues unable to take advantage of true in-person interaction because they can’t properly see your facial expressions, when you could conduct even face-to-face meetings quite happily, and in fact more effectively, via Zoom?

It is clear for this to work, the positives of coming together in an office will need to outweigh such inconveniences if mask wearing isn’t to deter office workers returning even further – with careful thought needed on this from employers on what to do if people cannot wear them for health reasons.

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