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Face coverings and the workplace: guidance from the UK

United Kingdom
Written by
Lewis Silkin, widely recognised as the UK’s leading specialist employment law practice.
This article discusses the current rules regarding face coverings at work in the UK and some of the practical issues that arise for employers.

At the end of August there were reports of a ‘debacle’ on a flight from the Greek island of Zante to Cardiff, which resulted in 193 passengers and crew facing two weeks’ self-isolation. The incident prompts several questions, not just for airlines but for employers generally about their responsibilities regarding 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 visitors in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not Wales).
  • Public transport. Face coverings are mandatory for travellers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Aircraft. Face coverings are mandatory for passengers boarding aircraft in England, Scotland and Wales, whereas Northern Ireland recommends their use.
  • Indoor spaces (including business premises where services are provided to the public, e.g. banks, post offices and indoor visitor attractions). Face coverings are mandatory for the public in certain indoor settings in England and Scotland, but do not have to be worn where it would be ‘impractical’ to do so (e.g. restaurants, pubs and gyms). In addition, the government’s general guidance says that face coverings should be worn in indoor places where people will come into contact with others they don’t normally meet and social distancing may be difficult. (In Northern Ireland, the rule includes ‘any other indoor place where goods or services are available to buy or rent… for example, a bookmakers, a food takeaway business or a dry cleaner’, whereas in Wales face coverings are advised in situations where social distancing can’t be maintained.)


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 (see here). 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.

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, and these include what (if any) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or face coverings they should be providing to employees.

Although members of the public are required to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain indoor settings, this requirement does not extend to employees (with some exceptions, see below). This is on account of the 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.

While employers should not 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 people will come into contact with people they do not normally meet.

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, type II masks for those working in 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 the 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 employe: 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, although this covers only a relatively small proportion of businesses. 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 quite 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.

Shalina Crossley
Partner - United Kingdom
Lewis Silkin

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