New laws coming into force in England next summer banning smoking in enclosed workplaces could leave employers facing a minefield of legal pitfalls unless they start planning now, employment law specialists have warned.
The advice from consultancy Croner has come as it has reported a surge in calls from worried employers to its customer advice lines about the new legislation.
A consultation process on the new laws was published by the British government last month.
But according to Croner, as many as a quarter of businesses have misunderstood the basic intentions of the anti-smoking legislation, leaving them liable for prosecution when it becomes law.
Nasar Farooq, health and safety technical manager at Croner, said that, while the regulations would not be fully confirmed until October, when the consultation period closes, employers should start planning now for its various implications.
"At this point we know that a blanket ban on smoking in the vast majority of enclosed workplaces will be introduced next summer and, although the detail has yet to be confirmed, employers needn't wait for the consultation period to end before starting to plan how to manage it," he said.
"For example, company cars have been designated as workplaces in the guidelines and, although we don't know if they will definitely fall under the ban, employers should be considering how they will enforce this now, rather than later," he added.
Companies therefore wanting to take a "belt and braces" approach to the ban could actively ban smoking from their company cars, he suggested.
"If it is only used by a smoker, they might have the latitude to continue to allow the driver to smoke in it, but if it could potentially be used by a non-smoker at any point, the issue becomes unclear, and a blanket ban becomes the simplest option," said Farooq.
The new legislation will cover all public spaces and workplaces with very few exceptions, and Farooq warned employers that they needed to prepare for it as seriously as they would for any other new employment law.
"Employers should be consulting with their workforce over exactly what the smoking ban will mean to them, how behaviours need to change and what the consequences could be for all parties if they don't," he recommended.
"Agreed policies and procedures should be put into place and carefully monitored in advance of the ban, so that any issues can be worked out before it's implemented. If the employers decide to recruit smokers, they should be informed of the smoking ban in advance to minimise the likelihood of any transgressions in the future," he added.
Now would also be a good time for employers to be reviewing the help they make available to their staff who want to give up smoking, from information leaflets and nicotine patches right through to medical interventions.
"It will take time for new workplace smoking policies to be shaped, implemented and fully understood, so employers have no need to panic, but by acting sooner rather than later, they can get ahead of the legislation and ensure they're on top of every part of it when it finally comes into force," said Farooq.