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Is the risk of the coronavirus a sufficient reason for refusing to go to work?

17.03.2020


Hi! I work at the cash register in a store and thus, am at a serious risk of coming in contact with people who carry the virus. If I really feel that I’m afraid to go to work because of all this, will the employer have the right to fire me or is there something that applies to going to work in connection with this emergency situation? Can you please try to explain to me what I should do or how I should behave?

Response by Piret Kaljula, work environment consultant of the Labour Inspectorate. Pursuant to clause 13 (1) 5) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the employer must organise a new risk assessment of the working environment, taking into consideration the emergency situation declared and the advice issued by the Health Board, and plan measures for prevention and/or alleviation of the risks based on the risk analysis.

In this situation, the employer must engage in the prevention activities specified in section 12¹ of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Prevention activities of an employer are the planning and implementation of measures for preventing or minimising health risks at all stages of work in the enterprise and for promoting the physical, mental, and social well-being of an employee. This means that the employer must implement measures on the basis of the following general principles of prevention:

  1. avoidance of risks – this means that the employer has considered how they can help to prevent the spread of the virus at their company,
  2. assessment of unavoidable risks – this means that the employer assesses whether and how they can reorganise work in order to ensure the necessary functioning of the company,
  3. elimination of risks at their source or, if this is not possible, reduction thereof to an acceptable level – this means that the employer observes the guidelines of the Health Board in order to prevent and alleviate the risks.

In other words, the employer must assess the risks and apply measures, especially the ones advised by the Health Board, and make changes in the work or in the organisation of work, if necessary. The employer must also notify the employees of the outcomes of the risk assessment, as well as of any measures applied to eliminate the risks. First, please contact your employer and ask to explain which (additional) measures the employer has taken to ensure the employees’ safety. Having received this information, you can make your own suggestions if your feel that the measures applied by the employer are not sufficient.

We would also like to explain that an employee has the right (clause 14 (5) 4) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act) to refuse to carry out work or to stop work the performance of which endangers his or her health or that of other persons or does not allow to comply with environmental safety requirements.

The employee may exercise this right if the employer fails to apply statutory measures as well as any precautions which are relevant and reasonable in a specific situation. In other words, if it has been proven that carrying on with the work would put to risk the employee’s life or health. The employee must take into consideration that they must be able to prove this in the event of a dispute at a later date.

As the crisis situation is difficult for all and decisions must be made quickly and based on incomplete information, we would advise the parties to negotiate any issues first. If you feel that it is hazardous for you to continue to work, for example, because you are in the risk group of the virus, please contact your employer and ask to reorganise your work so that you would not be required to come in contact with the customers directly, especially if you are included in the risk group of the virus.

The parties of the employment relationship must assess the situation in the country adequately, take into consideration the interests of the other party as well, and thereby find reasonable solutions.

Read more:

An overview of the articles about the coronavirus on Tööelu.

Frequently asked questions in connection with the coronavirus (teleworking, business trips abroad, lay-offs, holiday without pay).

Photo: Pixabay

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Is the risk of the coronavirus a sufficient reason for refusing to go to work?
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