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Occupational hazards - May 2021

10 May 2021

There has been a huge amount of coverage in the media on the issue of whether employers can force staff to have a Covid-19 vaccination. Here, Jimmy Quinn gives an insight into the debate.

IT'S BEEN alleged that many businesses have told people if they don’t have a jab, they won’t have a job. You only have to do a Google search for ‘No jab, no job’ to see exactly how much this topic is being debated.

There seems to be a huge amount of uncertainty over whether existing staff can be told they must have a vaccination or they risk disciplinary action and over whether having a vaccination can be included as a term of employment when recruiting. 

Can employers enforce vaccinations?

Vaccinations programmes for employees is not a new subject. In some professions and sectors, employers have been managing the risks of communicable diseases for many years. 

Take the healthcare sector, for example, where some workers have vaccines for Hepatitis B. Meanwhile, for business travellers, typhoid injections are often provided.

However, given Covid-19 presents a risk in workplaces across all sectors, the conversation around vaccinations – whether employers can enforce it – has really taken off.

The simple answer to the question is no; people cannot be forced to have the vaccine and their continued employment cannot depend on whether they have it or not.

What IOSH does recommend is that employers provide information about the vaccination (the process and the benefits) based on the Government advice at the time and it is then down to each individual to make their choice.

If an employee does refuse, they may be asked to sign a waiver statement that records that they had received and understood the explanation of why a vaccination is recommended, and the reasons why they refused. 

In addition, should this happen, organisations must review their risk assessments – which should already have been conducted – to determine whether further control measures are required. 

And this brings me around to the key point. Immunisation should be the last line of defence, and certainly not the sole protection offered. Therefore, other control measures are still essential and required, particularly as vaccination efficacy may not be 100 per cent or even effective in some people.

IOSH advocates that employers follow a prevention-first approach and implement control strategies that enable safe and healthy workplaces and activities. Depending on the outcome of the risk assessment, the collective control measures may include the provision of vaccinations, where they are readily available. Employers must inform employees about the hazards, risks and control measures and ensure any medical concerns are advised on by competent people. 

Other measures

The outcome of the risk assessments, and the control measures required, will of course vary from one organisation to another.

For example, healthcare workers, retail cashiers, home delivery drivers, utility engineers and construction workers have different exposure to the risk of virus transmission.

What all these, and every organisation, have in common is that they must protect their staff and everyone else impacted by their business.

Many organisations will have already adapted to this having been required to continue operations as normal throughout the pandemic. Others, however, may still be planning their reopening following another lockdown and considering how they can keep people safe.

What IOSH is clear about is that no one should go to work if risks to their health, safety and wellbeing aren’t being managed. So, any organisation looking to reopen must ensure they conduct risk assessments to identify the hazards and then implement necessary controls.

These controls can take many forms, but should be based on the hierarchy of control. They can include:

  • reducing physical contact between workers, and between workers and customers, such as using social distancing, splitting shifts to control the number of people on site, and changing processes to reduce contact;

  • allowing a good supply of fresh air and ventilation;

  • keeping the work environment clean, including through promoting hand-washing, providing sanitiser and having a good cleaning regime;

  • using signage and clear information around the workplace to make it clear what procedures are in place;

  • and introducing personal protective equipment and respiratory protective equipment.

Like the last point here, vaccinations should be the last line of defence. It is much better to control the risks in other ways.

This is especially the case when people have the right to exercise their own choice, which may well be not to have the vaccination.

Jimmy Quinn is president at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. For more information, visit www.iosh.com