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Clubs, bar and restaurants were put on notice about legal action over passive smoking this week, as an anti-smoking group joined forces with trade union firm Thompsons.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has sent a registered letter to all leading employers in the hospitality industry, warning that the "date of guilty knowledge" under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was past and that they should now know of the risks of exposing staff to secondhand smoke.
"Employers who continue to permit smoking in the workplace are therefore likely to be held liable by the courts for any health damage caused," ASH said. It argues that the letters could be used in any future court cases as "evidence that employers have been fully informed of the issue".
"Smoking in the workplace should have ended years ago. Bosses are no more entitled to allow smoke in the workplace as they are to allow asbestos or coal dust," said John Hall, a solicitor at Thompsons. "They need to give the order to stub out or they'll face the growing threat of legal action... If employers continue to do nothing, then they will leave themselves wide open to compensation claims, and they'll have no one to blame but themselves."
The letter drew bosses' attention to the "serious legal risks now being run by any employer that chooses to allow smoking at work". It cited a legal opinion from John Melville Williams QC, arguing that, in the light of current medical evidence, "the law already requires employers to protect their employees from environmental tobacco smoke, as it is a 'serious environmental hazard'". "When considering risk you should be aware that the key factor is not whether the employer in fact knew about the dangers, but whether they ought to have known, in the light of knowledge available at the time," said the ASH. "This is the concept of 'guilty knowledge'."