Reopening the Workplace: A Preliminary Guide for French Employers

May 06, 2020

While most companies in France (with the exception of cafés and restaurants, sports halls, theatres, museums, and companies whose activities allow teleworking) will be able to resume their activity from 11 May, employers must now take health and safety measures to ensure the protection of their employees and limit the risks of litigation and criminal proceedings.

The French Labor Code obliges employers to ensure the safety and protection of the physical and mental health of their workers. This obligation is almost an “obligation of result.” To that end, employers must take the following necessary measures:

  • Actions to prevent occupational risks and arduousness at work
  • Information and training measures
  • Establishment of an organization and appropriate means

Employers must also ensure that these measures are adapted to take account of changing circumstances and aim at improving existing situations. Article L. 4121-1 of the Labor Code.

Moreover, an employer may be held criminally liable for the mere fact the safety and protection of the physical and mental health of workers have not been provided, in addition to the possibility for employees to exercise their right of withdrawal. However, if the employer proves that it has implemented the necessary measures, it may limit its liability.

This criminal liability may apply, apart from any accident at work (or occupational disease) or even any damage.

In addition, employers must transcribe and update in a single document (document unique) the results of the assessment of the occupational risks identified in each work unit of the enterprise or establishment. This obligation applies to all employers regardless of the size of the workforce and the activity of the undertaking. Failure to complete or update the single document is a criminal offence.

The single document is drawn up and updated by the employer, but it is a collective effort, involving in particular the staff representative bodies, the occupational physician, and, possibly, external prevention services.

The Labor Code specifies that the inventory of identified risks must be made in "each work unit of the enterprise or establishment." The notion of work unit must be understood in a broad sense, in order to cover the very diverse situations of work organizations.

Preventive actions must be planned with a multidisciplinary approach, requiring medical, technical, and organizational skills.

The Labor Code provides for three ways of updating the single document:

  • An update at least once a year
  • An update when any major development decision modifying health and safety conditions or working conditions due to a major project introducing a real change in working conditions
  • An update "when additional information concerning the assessment of a risk in a work unit is collected"

The single document must be made available to employees, employee representatives, and the occupational physician. In addition, at their request, the single document must be provided to  the labor inspector, who can issue a report against the employer for failure to transcribe the results of the risk assessment into a single document or for failure to keep it up to date; and to prevention officers specific to certain activities (e.g., building, public works).

With regard to these requirements, employers must, before the reopening of businesses as of May 11, do the following:

  • Regularly update the single document by working with staff representatives, the occupational physician, and even the employees closest to the practical difficulties of implementing the "barrier gestures"
  • Anticipate measures for the layout of the premises in order to implement social distancing
  • Plan working time schedules to avoid too many employees on public transport
  • Take into consideration potential psycho-social risks

It should be noted that the Ministry of Labor has asked the labor inspectorates to be very vigilant to ensure that the return to work takes place in the safest possible conditions.

Coronavirus COVID-19 Task Force

For our clients, we have formed a multidisciplinary Coronavirus COVID-19 Task Force to help guide you through the broad scope of legal issues brought on by this public health challenge. We also have launched a resource page to help keep you on top of developments as they unfold. If you would like to receive a daily digest of all new updates to the page, please subscribe now to receive our COVID-19 alerts.


If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this LawFlash, please contact any of the following Morgan Lewis lawyers:

Sabine Smith-Vidal
Charles Dauthier