The COVID-19 pandemic has given many businesses a compelling reason to reassess their use of workspace. Remote- and hybrid-working are making it possible for some employers to reduce the amount of office space they use. This brings welcome cost savings. At the same time, however, employers must devote some space to mandatory facilities.
Explicit and implicit legal requirements
There are three key pieces of legislation governing the provision of facilities in the workplace. These are the Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations 1992, the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The Equality Act 2010 can also play a role.
The first sets out explicit requirements for what employers must provide. The others create implicit, often context-dependent requirements. Here is a short guide to what employers are explicitly or effectively required to provide for their employees. For completeness, these requirements extend to remote-/hybrid- and mobile workers.
Legally, it’s fine for employers to require their employees to use tap water, as long as it’s safe to drink (which it should be in the UK). If tap water is unavailable, employers must provide an alternative such as bottled water. Employers must provide drinking receptacles of some form. They must also ensure that employees can access water as necessary.
What this means in practice is very much context-dependent. For example, it might be considered perfectly fine to have employees in an air-conditioned office walk along a corridor to a single water cooler. By contrast, it might be considered completely unacceptable to expect the same from manual workers in a hot environment.
An employer must provide a place to heat food and a place to sit down and eat it. Employees must also be able to access washing facilities nearby. In general, however, this requirement can be satisfied by the provision of toilets (which are mandatory).
There is no requirement to provide employees with a fridge in which to store food. There is, however, a requirement for employers to provide nursing mothers with a place to store expressed breast milk if they are requested to do so.
Effectively, employers are also required to provide a fridge for any employee who needs it for medical purposes. This would typically be to store medication. Failure to do so would probably be a breach of health and safety and is likely to be viewed as discriminatory behaviour.
Realistically, however, it is strongly advisable for employers to provide the best break facilities they can manage. The legal reason for this is that the law now clearly recognizes that the principle of health and safety applies to employees’ mental health as well as their physical health. Providing high-quality break facilities can help to foster mental wellness at work.
For more information on rest breaks, read Pay and benefits.
Toilets and changing facilities
Employers must provide sufficient toilet facilities for their staff. These include both the toilets themselves and sinks for employees to wash their hands plus the associated facilities (e.g. soap and dryers). Sinks must have hot and cold water and toilets must be adequately lit, (although this applies through the workplace).
The number of toilets provided must be proportionate to the number of employees. There are legal guidelines on this. As always, however, these are minimum standards, not targets. There should be separate toilets for males and females if possible. If this is not possible (or employers wish to have gender-neutral toilets), then toilets should be in separate, lockable rooms.
If employees need to get changed at work (e.g. in and out of uniforms), then employers must provide suitable facilities for them to do so. Men and women must have separate and private changing rooms. Employers may also need to provide space for employees to dry wet clothing and/or store dirty clothing.
If an employee’s work involves them getting dirty, sweaty and/or smelly, then employers are likely to need to provide facilities for them to shower.
First aid, rest and assistive facilities
Employers must have first-aid facilities on-site. Again, the extent of first-aid provision depends on the number of employees a company has. Also, again, this is a minimum standard, not a target.
Technically, employers are only legally required to provide rest facilities if they are employing pregnant or nursing mothers. In practice, however, it generally makes sense to provide these facilities to other employees too.
If an employee has a disability then an employer is required to make “reasonable adaptations” to assist them to perform their duties. What this means in practice is 100% context-dependent. It could mean anything from text-to-speech converters to installing wheelchair-friendly doors.
For more information, read Health and safety.
Employers must ensure that they provide whatever facilities, amenities and equipment are necessary to allow a workplace to function healthily and safely. This can cover anything from light, to personal space for each employee, to ergonomic office equipment. This last option can straddle the line between amenity and essential.
For example, employees may prefer to swap out traditional office chairs in favour of newer alternatives such as adjustable-height stools or kneeling stools. They may also request adjustable-height desks. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to assess each application on its own merits and support them whenever possible.
For more information, read Health and safety.
This is possibly the biggest challenge modern employers have to face. Part of the reason why it’s such a challenge is that there is no “magic bullet” to deal with it. Promoting mental wellness at work typically requires a multi-pronged approach based on a sincere commitment from management. With that said, facilities and amenities can certainly play a role.
Just about everyone is likely to need some mental and/or physical breathing space at their work from time to time. In some cases, that will mean time out in a private place. In others, it will mean time out in a social environment. Recognizing this can go a long way towards promoting mental wellness at work.
Employees who feel mentally supported and appreciated are likely to be happier. They are therefore likely to stay longer and perform better. They are highly unlikely to end up bringing personal injury claims for mental-health issues caused through (or at least exacerbated by) their work and/or employer.
Employers should ensure that they have in place adequate policies to ensure the health and safety of their workforce. What specific policies may be necessary depend on the specifics of the situation; however, any business with 5 or more employees must have a written Health and safety policy in place. For more information on any other policies you may wish to create, see the HR policies checklist and remember that you can Ask a lawyer if you have any questions or don’t know where to start.