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Should employers be carrying out health checks on returning workers?

Drawing of 2 people with an arrow between them with a question mark and Coronavirus germ above, taken from iHASCO's online Coronavirus awareness training

Many organisations will have put in a lot of time to plan and implement Covid-secure measures to help protect their employees when they return to the workplace. During this process it may have been decided that regular health checks of employees will be put in place as a safety measure to try to detect who may be carrying the virus. Whilst it may seem like a sensible precaution to help keep the workplace safe, there is a lot to consider if you decide to go down this route. An organisation needs to be entirely satisfied that these health checks play a critical role in employee safety.

Are employee health checks part of the government's Covid-secure guidelines?

The detailed government guidance provides practical actions that can be taken to keep employees and customers safe, covering 8 different industry sectors. This has been designed to help businesses understand how to work safely and limit the risk of transmission of Covid-19. However this government guidance does not specifically raise the matter of employers carrying out temperature checks or health questionnaires (asking about any current symptoms, family illness or recent travel) of employees before allowing them to enter and remain at work. Therefore it is up to individual employers if this is a safety measure they want to implement. 

Under current government guidance, any individual experiencing Covid-19 symptoms should self isolate at home. Therefore employers should reinforce government messages to employees about what to do if they display Coronavirus symptoms, not only through policies and procedures but through other means of communication such as signage and correspondence too. Sick employees should be discouraged from coming to work in the first place. Furthermore employees should also know what to do if they become unwell at work. However additional workplace health checks and temperature checks do not need to be part of this, unless an organisation feels this safety measure is required.

Why might an organisation introduce health checks?

A business with a heightened risk of Covid-19 exposure, such as food businesses or those with frequent customer interactions, may choose to carry out health checks such as taking employees temperatures before they start work. After conducting a risk assessment a business may have identified health checks as an appropriate control measure. If after carrying out further consultation with employees, it may become apparent that staff are generally in support of these checks. This additional measure may provide more confidence to get employees back safely into the workplace. 

It should be considered if health checks will help keep the workplace safe and if these measures will provide accurate results. With one of the main symptoms of Coronavirus being a high temperature, temperature checks could be seen as an accurate indicator of if someone is possibly unwell with Covid-19. Yet employers need to bear in mind that a raised temperature isn’t the only symptom of Covid-19, however it is an indicator of illness. Further details need to be worked out, such as how frequently temperatures would be checked & by who (e.g. by a specific person or infrared cameras) and what is the procedure following a high reading (is there a second check using a different method, do employees immediately leave, what is the sickness policy). On top of that, recording health information about employees means organisations need to adhere to data protection law. 

What data protection issues are there with recording employee health details?

Collecting health information through questionnaires or temperature checks requires you to comply with the GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018. This information would be classed as ‘special category data’ and it must be handled lawfully, fairly and transparently. The employer needs to demonstrate that these health checks and any recorded information is necessary and proportionate. The ICO has produced guidelines relating to testing employees, which should be followed. If organisations can prove that health check information is necessary to protect the health and safety of employees, it can be processed, however only necessary data can be kept. Transparency is also required, so staff should be aware of what data is required, how it will be used, who it will be shared with, how long it will be kept as well as be informed about their right to view data.

Data protection law does not prevent you from taking the necessary steps to keep your staff and the public safe and supported during the present public health emergency. But it does require you to be responsible with people’s personal data and ensure it is handled with care.

Can an employee refuse to take part in health checks?

An employee must consent to health checks, including questionnaires and temperature checks. If it is not part of their contractual obligations then employers must seek consent from their staff. They should explain why they feel it is necessary to implement these checks in relation to their risk assessment and the ongoing safety of the workplace, as well as address any data protection issues. Staff cannot be forced to take part in health checks and if an employee refuses they cannot be excluded from the workplace or disciplinary action cannot be taken. 

Some organisations already have temperature checks in place or health questionnaires for employees, such as those working in social care or the hospitality industry. If your business operates in an industry where employees cannot work from home it appears more likely that health checks could form part of a safe return to work. Most employees will appreciate that it is an additional safety measure to protect themselves and others from the spread of infection, however it can only be on a voluntary basis. Employers could ask staff to check their own temperature before coming into work. But perhaps what is more important is continually communicating with employees to ensure they are fully aware of any new policies and procedures as a result of Covid-19 and discussing their concerns in order to gain full support of workplace safety.

Returning to work 

Help support your employees and achieve a smooth transition back to the workplace with iHASCO’s returning to work essentials training bundle. Not only does online training help an organisation to meet its health and safety obligations, but it can provide employees with the confidence to make a safe return to work. With new social distancing and hygiene measures to take into account, as well as other key areas such as fire safety and mental health awareness, iHASCO can help you implement a cost effective training programme for your employees. Set up a free trial today to view our full course library and see how we can help your business.

iHASCO's returning to work online training courses bundle