Can your boss make you go back to work if you don’t think it is safe there?

What does the law say?

There are two opposing factors that are relevant here:

  1.       On one hand, under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees can claim that they have suffered a detriment on health and safety grounds, or claim automatically unfair dismissal, if they reasonably believed there was serious and imminent danger and that led to their refusal to return to work.
  2.      On the other hand, in all employment contracts there is an implied term that says employees must follow their employer’s lawful and reasonable instructions.

What has your boss told you about the workplace? Has it been made safe and  Covid-19 Compliant?

Do you think your boss has done everything they can to make the workplace safe?

They may feel they have no choice but to insist that employees return to work, especially if the future of the business is at risk.

If possible, they should have asked for employees to volunteer to work; some employees may prefer to take the risk of contracting covid-19, rather than the risk of redundancy.

However, if there are no volunteers to work, they may have no choice but to tell people to return to work.

Should you refuse to go back?

This means that you should only refuse to work, if you genuinely believe that working would put you in danger and that belief is based on the reality of the situation, with you having listened properly to, and taken into account, anything your boss has told you about how they plan to keep you safe.

If your boss thinks you are being unreasonable in not working, you run the risk of disciplinary action and possibly dismissal. 

If you are planning to refuse to work, make sure you explain your position to your boss and why you think it is not safe; keep notes of everything you have said and anything your employer has told you in response.

You will be able to make a claim at an employment tribunal, if you had a genuine health & safety concern, but there is a very long backlog of cases, so it will be a long time before it can be heard and before you might get any payment, even if you are successful.