03/07/2014 13:01 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 06:59 BST

What Stance Should Employers Take on E-Cigarettes in the Workplace?

More than 50 leading scientists from 15 countries have appealed to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure e-cigarettes are not classified as the same as traditional cigarettes.

As the debate continues about the health benefits or consequences of electronic cigarettes, employers must take care when making a decision about whether staff should be allowed to use them at work.

The lack of agreement among health professionals about the benefits or otherwise of e-cigarettes is making it a difficult for employers to know how to treat their use at work. More than 50 leading scientists from 15 countries have appealed to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure e-cigarettes are not classified as the same as traditional cigarettes. On the other hand, ministers in France are reportedly banning their use in public places (bars, restaurants and other public spaces), while a similar move is being debated in Wales.

Regardless, we know that the number of e-cigarette smokers in the UK has increased from 700,000 to two million in the past two years, after figures were released by the anti-tobacco charity Ash (Action on Smoking and Health). Furthermore, the research shows that a third of users are, in fact, ex-smokers and two thirds are existing smokers.

Without regulation, employers need to make their own decisions about whether to permit e-cigarette smoking in the workplace and if so, where and when. Whatever the employer's chosen stance happens to be, they then need to communicate this clearly to the workforce.

E-cigarettes pose a real dilemma for employers. As employees wait for employers to make their mind up about what they want to do, employees are being left in limbo wondering whether or not it is acceptable to 'vape' in the workplace. In the absence of a clear stance, some employees have already started 'vaping' in the workplace, which has caused some of their colleagues to express their discontent.

Employers need to develop a policy and spell it out clearly. Failing to do so will undoubtedly lead to employees creating their own rules, which could create workplace tension and potentially lead to disputes.

Some employers may be reluctant to tackle the issue of e-cigarettes, however.

Employers may be delaying introducing a policy because they don't want to take a stance on e-cigarettes until more is known about the effects. A particular stance could offend other smokers, especially if there has been a history of complaints about smoking breaks.

There is also the tricky issue of where e-cigarette smokers should be allowed to go to 'vape' and in particular, whether they should be allowed to 'vape' in the office. Employers would be wise to side-step this issue by requiring smokers and e-cigarette smokers alike to 'smoke outdoors'.

E-cigarettes are tobacco-free devices and were introduced as an alternative to conventional tobacco products. It is alleged that the battery-powered versions contain less harmful chemicals and they are marketed as a 'safer' alternative to regular smoking, or as a way to quit. However, health minister Mark Drakeford has recently expressed his fears that the e-cigarette movement is 'renormalising' smoking, and employers are being left to battle with a long-list of issues related to 'vaping'. These issues include the potential unsettling of non-smoking employees, the effects of inhaling second-hand vapour or even the practical issues of their disposal and fire hazards.

Regardless of whether these fears about e-cigarettes are justified or not, most employers feel that the fact that they exist at all is reason enough to ban them inside the workplace. Major employers, such as JCB and the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, are amongst those that have led the way by introducing bans, as a result of these concerns. More recently, councils in Newcastle and Cheshire East seem set to join them and impose bans on e-cigarettes.

Whatever the fate of the controversial e-cigarette and its use in the workplace, it's a subject that will continue to be surrounded by uncertainty for some time yet.

Paula Whelan, head of employment law at Shakespeares