What are our rights when it comes to commuting to work safely?

Lydia SmithWriter, Yahoo Finance UK
Yahoo Finance UK
According to a survey, 31% of workers are anxious about commuting during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty
According to a survey, 31% of workers are anxious about commuting during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty

Commuting by public transport is rarely enjoyable under normal circumstances. There aren’t any free seats on the packed bus or train, you’re forced to jostle to elbow room with fellow workers and there are usually delays and cancellations to contend with.

It will come as no surprise to many that commuting can be bad for our health, contributing to anxiety, stress and even our waistlines. A recent study of British commuters found that even just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

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But during a global pandemic, travelling to work is even more of a minefield. According to a recent survey of 1,000 employees carried out by YouGov for the CIPD, 31% were anxious about commuting to work under the current circumstances. Those based in London were far more likely than other parts of the UK to have concerns about this, with 52% saying they were anxious about commuting to work because of COVID-19.

In the workplace, employers have a legal duty to ensure the health safety and welfare of all their employees during the coronavirus outbreak. This means they must take reasonable steps to eliminate risks, such as sticking to social distancing guidelines. But what rights do employees have when it comes to commuting to work?

READ MORE: Why we are anxious about going back to work

“Currently your commute isn’t part of health and safety at work,” says Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Hayat Rafique. “However, if an employee believes their commute places them in serious and imminent danger because of COVID-19, they might be able to refuse to travel. Before this happens I would encourage anyone with concerns to speak to their employer to find a way around this issue.

“Under existing legislation an employer has a duty to ensure the health and safety of its employees. This only includes a person’s workplace or sites and travel visited as part of their role, it does not cover the commute to and from a location for work,” he adds.

“However, employers should consider the risks associated with an employee’s commute as it may put them in an unsafe position.”

If you’re worried about commuting to work, you could speak to your boss about alternative options such as working from home or changing your hours so you can avoid rush hour. Make your case clearly and suggest reasonable changes that would allow you to continue working safely.

“Employers may want to consider specific concerns employees have and take into account each person’s individual circumstances,” says Rafique. “This could include whether they could complete different tasks from home, change shift patterns to travel during off-peak hours or support alternative travel arrangements like private vehicles.

“If employers have taken all reasonable steps to control the risk and explored alternative options with their employees, they may be able to take disciplinary action should staff refuse to work. However, this would leave them open to possible Employment Tribunal claims.”

If you do have to travel on public transport to get to work, there are several steps you can take to help protect yourself from COVID-19. It is mandatory to wear a mask or face covering and it’s important not to touch your face.

READ MORE: Can employers limit staff toilet breaks?

The virus that causes coronavirus is spread primarily through droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. You can also become infected by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands.

Bring hand sanitiser along for the journey and use it every time you touch something like a seat or handrail. Wash your hands for 20 seconds when you get to work.

You should stick to social distancing guidelines and stay apart from other commuters. Wait for other people to get off the train or bus before boarding and if you can, avoid physical contact and face away from other people.

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