Don't put your foot in it
23 January 2013
Workplace footwear has been under the spotlight recently following the TUC's suggestions that risk assessments should be carried out on women wearing heels to work. Kathleen Potter considers employers' responsibilities in this area...
At the annual TUC Conference in September 2009, the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists revealed that a staggering 2 million working days are lost every year from injuries caused by high heels such as bunions, trapped nerves or even more serious problems such as spinal injuries.
The society urges employers to regulate the footwear of their staff? As part of their duties towards keeping employees safe and protecting themselves against claims for damages, employers need to be aware of the legal obligations they face regarding dress codes and footwear. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes a duty upon employers to safeguard employees so far as is reasonably practicable while they are at work, but how far does this duty go? For working environments that have general business attire dress codes, it may be a step too far to impose a duty upon the employer regarding the footwear that their employees chose to wear.
Keeping up appearences Elsewhere, some businesses emphasise that the appearance of staff is important to the company's corporate image. As such, some companies may insist upon a strict dress code which requires employees to adopt glamorous attire - implying that staff must wear high heeled shoes. Within businesses that impose a strict dress code or indeed foster a culture which puts pressure upon an employee to wear such footwear, employers may find that they will owe their employees a duty of care if it causes them injuries.
Prevention of a claim is always better than cure and employers do of course have a vested interested in keeping their staff healthy and at work. It is important for businesses to examine current working practices and identify ways of limiting any potential exposure they have to claims or sickness absence. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that where there is a risk of harm as a result of the working environment, an employer must risk assess and identify ways of reducing that risk to the lowest level.
When deciding upon a dress code, employers should balance the desire to present a particular corporate image against health and safety risks. An easy solution is to review the current dress code; it is not advisable to demand that high heels are worn and the terminology can be revised, perhaps to "smart shoes".
Dress codes in themselves can also raise other legal issues for employers, in that if a business has a 'shoe' policy which is targeted specifically at women, it potentially directly discriminates on grounds of sex. To avoid issues of discrimination, the policy could be framed as a 'sensible shoe' policy which would apply to men and women. Even though the rules would not be identical as the shoes worn by men and women are different, this will not amount to discrimination.
Educating the work force Another preventative measure is to educate employees upon the known risks to health and safety related to footwear.
Employers may consider providing podiatry literature or indeed a visiting chiropodist to provide this. Education and training will ensure that the employee can make an informed choice about their footwear and will also enable the prevention or early detection of problems. It is important for an employer to react appropriately to any questions raised by employees regarding any difficulties they experience as a result of the footwear they wear at work.
Employers should encourage employees to report symptoms straight away, followed by a swift referral to occupational health..
If, despite the employer's best efforts, an employee complains of foot pain, back pain or leg pain, it may not necessarily be connected to the footwear that they wear to work. In order for an employee to succeed with a claim for personal injury against their employer, the employee must provide medical evidence that supports a causal link between their condition and the footwear that they wear whilst at work.
Kathleen is a solicitor in the commercial insurance team at law firm Weightmans LLP