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Vaccinations and the workplace

IOSH’s Head of Advice and Practice Duncan Spencer  took part in two webinar panel discussions about Covid-19 vaccinations. He looked at how employers can manage vaccination and where they stand if staff refuse to have the vaccine. There was much in the press about the refusal by some people to be vaccinated against Covid-19, which even resulted in Governments in some countries creating new legislation to make vaccination compulsory in healthcare settings.

Presently, a ‘right to refuse vaccination is enshrined in UK legislation. Vaccination is an invasive procedure. Human rights recognise the sanctity of a person’s own body: people have a legal right to refuse medical intervention. While it may be true that vaccination may also be refused on medical grounds, this relates to a very small number of individuals. Most refusers cannot legitimately claim this justification. Employers may wish to seek evidence from a medical practitioner regarding any employee claims on these grounds, but it is not that simple. 

Under health and safety legislation there is a duty to assess risk to both employees and third parties: anyone who may be affected by the organisation’s undertaking. This is the heart of the compulsory vaccination debate in healthcare. Which is more important? A fundamental human right of an employee, or knowingly allowing a higher level of risk to other employees and third parties if they are allowed to refuse vaccinations? This is a moral dilemma. 

It is not always possible to redeploy care workers and nurses to other duties to mitigate the risk of them transmitting disease to others. Certainly, hospital patients and care home residents are often at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 due to age and the presence of other medical conditions. While in most countries' healthcare workers will have at least some vaccination, it may not stop them contracting the disease and emerging evidence suggests it may still be potentially fatal in a small number of cases. 

When hiring new staff, it is possible for organisations to place a contractual requirement on them to be vaccinated. If they refuse that aspect of the contract, they simply will not be hired. There would, however, need to be just cause for making this a condition of employment.  

The dilemma lies with existing staff. People refuse vaccination for different reasons. Finding ways to coerce people to have the vaccination may be counterproductive and develop entrenched positions. It is estimated that only 2% of refusers are opposed to all vaccination. For most, the reason for refusal may come from receiving false information on social media or in social discussions. They may be misled, confused or uncertain. 

Taking steps to educate and reassure people has a real chance of changing mindsets, providing opportunity to make informed decisions and thereby achieving higher levels of compliance. 

Be open, transparent and find every opportunity to inform and give space to consider the options and consequences of not taking these vaccines. Look for allies. Often unions and work colleagues are also good sources of persuasion. 

Vaccination is nothing new. For years police officers have been vaccinated against Hepatitis B, teachers against influenza, and business travellers against yellow fever. Coronavirus is just one more to add to the list. Let us ensure we educate our employees about why vaccination is important and necessary, thereby winning their compliance by appealing to their sense of responsible citizenship. 

IOSH’s policy position on vaccinations is available here on our website.

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Marcus Boocock
PR Lead +44 (0) 116 257 3139
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