Time to blow the whistle on shops


Employees have to wear a mask if their employer tells them to.


Wearing of face covering is not required by law, nor even government guidance, in ordinary situations such as supermarkets, shops and offices. It is not just employees with disabilities who have special legal protection. Any employee who objects can give themselves whistle-blower special protection against being picked on for refusing to wear a mask.

The regulations exempt most employees

The requirement to wear a face covering specifically does not apply to an employee at relevant premises acting in the course of their employment. (regulation 3(2)(b)).

The government does not recommend that employees wear a face covering

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) on its website does not recommend wearing of face covering.

The government guidance recommends only that employees should follow guidance from their employer based on a workplace health and safety assessment. The buck having thereby been passed to the employer, this looks like another case of a government request, not a direction.

But how many employers will have done an assessment on the dangers for their staff of wearing or not wearing a face covering? Has anyone seen something purporting to be such a risk assessment? Does it identify a danger that they seek to address? Or the measurable benefit of the policy? Or the potential harm?

Causing any unjustified distress is a fundamental breach of contract

Pre-Covid, what employer would say to their customers, their insurer, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) or to the Unions “We adopt policies that cause significant discomfort, upset and even distress to our staff but, we’re not monsters, we do stop short of severe distress.”

An employer who deliberately causes their employee to suffer moderate but unnecessary stress at work without reasonable and proper cause will be behaving unreasonably. Even if not going so far as to cause diagnosable injury, this would be a fundamental breach of contract. No sleep-walking adherence to unenforceable government guidance changes that.

If the employee is dismissed for refusing to wear a mask, or if the employees resigns claiming constructive dismissal in response to a fundamental breach of contract, the employee will be entitled to compensation for that dismissal.

Normally, claims for unfair dismissal are reserved to employees with two or more years’ service. However, protection may be much wider in these cases for those with disabilities and for a nation of concerned whistle-blowers.

Ask for the risk assessment

In the absence of a risk assessment that evidences justification for a policy, an employer may have great difficulty defending it.

The first and obvious step for any employee is politely to ask for a copy of the employers risk assessment(s) in relation to wearing of face coverings and for the precise reason why the policy is adopted.  ‘Following government guidance’ is not a satisfactory answer since it is not government guidance.

Whistle-blowing protection

An employee who believes wearing a face covering is likely to be harmful or unjustified should not be required to wear one and may gain special protection.

More precisely, there is specific whistle-blowing protection for any employee disclosing their reasonable belief that, for example, by promoting or enforcing the policy of wearing of a face covering:

  • is likely to endanger the health or safety of any individual; or
  • a person has failed, is failing or is likely to fail to comply with any legal obligation to which he is subject

Many employees may have such a reasonable belief based on limited reading or research. They may be rather more convinced of endangerment from mask than of any significant likelihood of they or their colleagues suffering harm from Covid-19. In relation to other legal obligations, we have already pointed out that .

If they are concerned about being treated unfavourably, or even dismissed, for refusing or even just speaking up, they can take steps to protect themselves.  They can ensure their refusal is protected as a public interest disclosure (otherwise known as whistle-blowing).

This protection is given to all workers, regardless of length of service.

How to make the disclosure

A disclosure can be verbal but, ideally, should be made in writing so that there is clear evidence of it. As a formal but clear example, taking the language of the Employment Right Act 1996, some or all of the bullet point paragraphs might apply:

“I believe that the policy and practice of requiring or encouraging wearing of masks to be worn by employees at work:

  • is likely to endanger my health and safety and/or that of the rest of workforce and workers generally
  • means that the environment has been, is being or is likely to be damaged by this policy because of the amount of waste being generated
  • fails or is likely to fail to comply with employers’ legal obligations to care for the health and safety of their workforce”

It is not necessary to list the reasons or evidence for any such belief, but an employee may well wish to add some short (or long) explanation for their belief and this would usually be helpful. There is plenty of information out there and no doubt people will share their suggestions in social media.

An employer who dismisses or causes any detriment to an employee in response to such a disclosure may find it to be an expensive mistake.

A manager or director who treats the employee so badly in response that the employee resigns claiming constructive dismissal will find themselves personally liable to pay potentially very significant compensation.

Employees with a disability

Employees with a disability will have further protection under the Equality Act 2010.

In vast majority of cases there will be good reason for the employer to enquire about the particular disability and limited disclosure will rarely be an issue. The stages of disclosure suggested in the tool kit in our post Face covering: litigation threats and administrative headache can help guide an employee here if an employee feels that a request for information when objecting to wearing a mask is intrusive.

Assuming an employer is respectful, an employer is unlikely to be criticised for polite enquiry or for the employee having to disclose the fact of a relevant disability. As for insisting on disclosure of details to be satisfied it is a relevant disability, again most employees may be happy to disclose on a confidential basis to the appropriate manager or occupational health.

When push comes to shove and an employee suffers any significant upset or other detriment, such as loss of status, loss of earnings or even loss of their job, the employee may complain of disability discrimination.  An employee who suffers detriment simply because they complain of disability discrimination will also have a stand alone claim for victimisation.

At the Employment Tribunals…

In any of these cases, the next port of call will be the Employment Tribunals where the employer will have to justify their treatment of the employee.

The extent of justification required will vary but, in cases alleging disability discrimination in particular, this will be a real problem for employers. The employer must present evidence to justify their actions. What will that be if the only evidence is that mask wearing does little or no good the likelihood of harm to their staff from Covid-19 is negligible?

“We are following government guidance” is an easy to make, convenient statement of what they are doing, but not why they are doing it or on what evidence. It is also a very problematic defence to an ordinary unfair dismissal claim or a whistle-blowing claim.

If some other justification is attempted, what will that be? Something to do with views of other staff or of customers, views they haven’t bothered to inquire into? There will be considerable expense and difficulty in gathering and presenting justification for a mask wearing policy, whatever argument might be attempted.

Claims can be cheap but cost businesses fortunes

Employment Tribunal claims need not cost the employee a penny. The Employment Tribunals do no charge any fees. Although specialist employment lawyers would be best (and we can recommend if asked), an employee can pursue the claim themselves or with help from a friend if they cannot afford, or don’t have insurance to cover, solicitors’ fees. In the vast majority of cases, the claimant employee and the defendant employer each have to pay their own way, win or lose. The same applies to defendant employees if the case is brought against them personally.

Where employees win discrimination or whistle-blowing cases, there is no limit on the compensation that can be awarded. There could be many of these cases up and down the country.

Whichever way you look at it, the face covering laws (and guidance, not law) will not be putting smiles on any employer’s face.

And finally…

Employers should be checking with their insurers if they will be insured against personal injury claims that may result from wearing of masks. They are far more likely to arise and to be successful than the next-to-impossible Covid-19-based claim. The chances of an employee successfully claiming that failure to promote such a policy caused them to suffer a Covid-19 injury are so infinitesimally small as to be zero (as explained in Risk assessments: an important chink in the lockdown armour).

Insurers might well turn around and ask the business why they required masks to worn when no risk assessment justified it and when no law required it. Insurers might well be asking themselves now why they are exposing themselves to such claims.

In all events, when considering employers’ duties to look after their employees, it is difficult to see how making them wear masks fits in.



Warning: Law and circumstances can change very quickly.  Please note the date of publication of any blog post and check for any updates on the issues addressed. In any event, we do not condone or encourage breaching the law and neither the above nor any information posted on this website constitutes legal advice. It must not be relied upon as such and specialist legal advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances. Please read our disclaimer.

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12 thoughts on “Time to blow the whistle on shops”

  1. It seems that 1st bus company south wales is not leaving any1 on the bus who are saying they are exempt without a doctors cert ,even though doctors are not issuing these and they have downloaded an exempt card onto their phone ,This is not the drivers fault they are following orders ,

    1. It is unfortunate that the drivers are being put in this position. They do not have to be named in a claim, but they can be and it may often be quite appropriate. Neither they nor their employers are exempt from the law.

    2. They are not authorised to be able to legally enforce this, as the coronavirus act clearly spells out that it is not enforceable by these individuals, even if instructed to by employers. They could be liable to a £9000 fine under the equality act if they do.

  2. I think I’ve found my answer in this article here
    thank you, – how to make the disclosure…
    Whisthle blowing can be in the interest of the general public such customers that enter the shop!
    I think this is the way to go.
    Thank you again.

  3. Quick update: I’ve been suspended from work,(dismissal highly probable down the pipeline) for refusing to “actively encouraging” customers to wear face masks.This is sickening.
    I need all the help that I can get.

    1. Daniela. Go to grievance procedure meetings and state your case and if disciplined then seek help via Employment Tribunal or civil courts for unfair dismissal against your employer on these grounds:

      An employer may discipline an employee for refusing to carry out a “reasonable” direction, however that direction is not considered a “reasonable” one when it exposes the employee to potential legal trouble or litigation from a customer with a health condition (including a hidden disability eg. respiratory illness, hearing impairment, anxiety disorder or depression) alleging that he was victimised or harassed by shop staff for not wearing a mask when he was exempt. Note both the employer and the individual worker (you) are subject to compliance with the law as defined by The Equality Act and any legal claims from customers for victimisation/ harassment / hurt feelings arising from it. This is why government guidance states that shop staff are not expected to act as enforcers of mask wearing and should instead rely on police to actually enforce it.

      At the very least you could argue that you ought to have been given a special training course on how to interact with a customer sensitively in incidents where customer asserts exemption from mask wearing on health grounds, so as to avoid potential legal action from a customer against you personally. The training course should have included legal info to clarify and guide you, eg. you have no right to enquire about personal medical details from customer, details of any difficult altercation should be recorded in an incident book etc.

      Perhaps a friend of yours can practically demonstrate how things could go badly awry for your employer by entering the shop as a customer and making a fuss with a printed copy of the “face mask legal Toolkit” on this website when challenged by staff. He need not show medical evidence and may simply hand them the “Toolkit” docm and walk out before police are called. To further worry your employer, your friend could maybe even email a week later requesting they retain CCTV footage of incident as he is considering consulting a solicitor (sleepless night for the manager if he has by then overwritten that days footage).

  4. I work in a salon in wales and my boss wants me to wear a mask. So far I have politely declined but he is saying it will be mandatory in wales soon so I should start now. I assume I can’t be dismissed for refusing one but can I be if the guidelines are updated to making them mandatory??

  5. I work for a local authority.
    Unknown to myself and without a risk assessment they made it mandatory to wear a mask in the garage reception area.
    On Monday I walked to the reception door which was open. I took one step in and was told by two people one the manager that I could not enter without a mask.
    I said I don’t wear one. Again I was told I couldn’t enter. I said I was exempt. I was told if I had no mask I could not enter. The fleet manager then told me to go away. I asked for a copy of the risk assessment I was refused on three occasions and told to go away.
    Both these people were behind a plastic screen and 3 metres away.
    At no time did I enter any further than in the doorway.
    I felt humiliated and treated different to other people at work.
    Today I discussed it with HR
    HR said they need to see medical evidence I have copd and asthma and told me I would need to wear a face shield if not wearing a mask.
    I feel that they have discriminated against me breaking the 2010 equality act
    Also they have no right asking for proof of my copd and asthma even though it is medically diagnosed.
    I have this all video recorded on my phone.
    Could you lease advise re: discrimination, privacy violation and making me feel embarrassed humiliated and distressed.
    I am in a union but they don’t know what to do
    I require a lawyer
    Please help.

    1. What an awful set of affairs..how would even a face shield protect you from what?

      Frankly ignorance, fear, add a healthy dose of arrogance = not a great combination for anyone! Shocking. Hope it gets sorted amicably.

    2. Employment Tribunal might think it a reasonable request by employer to an employee to ask for medical evidence, although a photo of your prescription or sticky label stuck on asthma inhaler box or copd medicine bottle is adequate as long as your name is on it (phone call to your GP practice saying you’ve been a bit breathless lately would usually get you an emailed prescription same day). IMHO maybe wise give that to HR if you don’t want things to escalate.

  6. My Mother has an appointment to see specialist in Wales, they told her she has to wear a mask even though she is exempt, I explained to the lady on the phone who said, she would not be seen unless she puts a mask on, this is imho criminal and barbaric,

  7. Hi I’ve had to provide medical information to the care company I work for and all under duress as without they threatened to terminate my contract. I have stated via email with my company that I am exempt from wearing a face covering based on respiratory issues and savere distress as I suffer from anxiety and the company I worked for imposed unpaid leave onto me telling me that because I haven’t provided proof that I am (asthmatic) however I clearly stated when providing my medical summary that I was providing it as proof of respiratory issues and note that my work place have on file that I suffer from anxiety and have been harassing me and in the end calling me a liar regarding my exemptions based on medical information I was under no obligation to provide and now as of today they have terminated my contract. Side note I have stated to them the links to the government guidelines regarding exemptions and stated that this is in violation of section 112 and 119 of the equality act and they have ignored the majority of my questions regarding these laws and guidance and proceeded to go through with disciplinary based of my (refusal to wear a mask). I am wondering what the next steps I should be taking should be and if there is any help I could get regarding this.

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