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There is a growing acceptance of remote working and lots of new good practice to be embraced, but as many workplaces and furloughed employees are now returning to work employers should consider again if the workplace is ‘COVID secure’. Employers will need to continue to ensure the safety of all employees including those returning to the workplace and those continuing to work at home. Employers can check if they are able to reopen and applicable requirements on Gov.uk here.
Employers will have to develop an entirely new way of working and take steps in the post COVID-19 era to maintain the health and well-being of their employees. The response to the coronavirus outbreak is led by The Department of Health & Social Care and Public Health England. Information, guidance and support is available on Gov.uk and from the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) to help employers make workplaces ‘COVID secure’.
The overarching HSE guidance covers 6 steps, discussed below, towards working safely which can be applied across the full range of workplace settings. More detailed sector based and topic based guidance is also available from the HSE and government.
Step 1 – carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment
This should be done before the workplace opens again and kept under review. It should include a risk assessment being undertaken based on HSE guidance and consulting with employees and any relevant trade unions.
The risk assessment should identify who is at risk, what activities risk causing transmission of the virus, how likely transmission is and confirm the measures in place or to be put in place to control the risk. HSE guidance is available which includes practical measures that could be taken. While templates are useful a generic one size fits all approach should not be undertaken for all sites or premises that employers operate from. The risk assessment should be specific to your activities and for each specific workplace which will all have unique factors to consider.
Step 2- Communication
By consulting and involving people in the steps taken to manage the risk of coronavirus in the workplace employers can; explain the changes required to work safely; make sure changes will work in practice and hear employee ideas (which may result in better or alternative measures to help reduce the risks); ensure employees understand new required working polices, procedures or working practices; and continue to operate safely.
Under the government guidance there is an expectation that businesses with more than 50 employees will publish the results of any risk assessment on their website. Although government guidance suggests this would be expected, the key is to ensure that all employees are given comprehensible and relevant information. Information should be made available to employees and employers may want to consider a variety of forms capable of reaching employees quickly and clearly, including website/intranet publication but also other channels such as all staff communications, specific group communications, training, briefings, information posters and tool box talks.
Risk assessments and measures identified and implemented are only likely to be as effective as possible if imposed via genuine consultation between employers and employees, and if employees clearly know the expectations and can comply in practice with new ways of working.
Step 3 – Help people to work from home
Although the guidance centres upon making the workplace safe, the government advice is still for employees that can work from home to do so.
Steps to make this happen include; discussing the home working option in an open manner, providing the equipment needed alongside remote access to work systems, making sure that home workers are included in all relevant workplace communications, that regular contact is made and taking steps to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of employees working from home.
Step 4 – Make the workplace ‘COVID secure’
The guidance set out by the government details the kind of practical steps employers need to take to ensure their workplace complies with all Health and Safety regulations, in the COVID-19 environment. For example, putting in place social distancing measures (with floor markings and reminders), staggering shifts, putting in physical screens/barriers, providing additional handwashing facilities and hand sanitiser, and providing signage to remind people of measures in place.
The risk assessment should have identified employees unable to work from home and what measures are required to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. These measures should be fully implemented and kept under review.
The 2m social distancing rule is currently the focus of much debate, with lobbyists from sectors such as hospitality and personal services attempting to persuade the government to reduce the distance to 1m.
For the time being, however, it remains at 2m, and even if it does shortly drop to 1m, the advice would still be; to put up signage reminding employees of the social distance guidance, avoid sharing workstations, use floor tape or paint to mark areas which will help employees to maintain the correct distance from each other, arrange a one way system of movement through the workplace where possible and switch to an appointment system for seeing visitors when practical.
Areas of the workplace which may require particular attention in this regard include stairwells, lifts, entrances and exits, canteens and restrooms.
When it is not possible to maintain a 2m or even 1m distance, the advice is, firstly to think about whether the activity in question needs to continue in order for the business to operate. If it does, then work to keep the time spent on it as short as possible, use screens and barriers to separate people and use back to back or side to side working where possible. In addition, the staggering of arrival and departure times for different workers should make it easier for them to maintain the correct distance from each other.
Step 5 – Protect people at higher risk
Any employee that is shielding because they are vulnerable should not be asked to work outside of their own home. Help should be provided to allow the employee to work from home and if their role is not possible in a home environment employees should consider in an alternative role could be undertaken from home. Communication is key to try and agree the best way to protect the shielded person.
Step 6 – Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures
Employers should encourage all employees to follow the guidance on handwashing and hygiene, not least by providing clearly marked hand sanitiser around the workplace over and above existing washrooms (with running water, soap and paper towels) along with signs and posters to remind employees.
Making sure that surfaces remain clean is essential to reduce the spread of the virus. Surfaces and objects that are touched regularly should be cleaned and disinfected regularly and the cleaning of busier areas enhanced, asking employees to help when appropriate. Clear guidance should be available for the use and cleaning of all equipment and facilities.
Long term change
Without an effective vaccine, the virus looks set to be with us for some time, which will require new ways of working to be established with a long term view and may include a number of changes to workplace policies, practices and procedures and may include physical changes to the workplace.
Any employer failing to undertake a risk assessment or to implement the changes required to make workplaces COVID-secure, risks greater transmission of the virus and could be the subject of investigation and enforcement action. Regulators are likely to pay extremely close attention to businesses that haven’t planned properly for the return to work, with proactive requests for risk assessments or inspections of workplaces becoming much more frequent.
Unique circumstances are currently dictating workplace safety, but health and safety law remains the same and the basic principles underpinning the latest government guidelines are employers must protect people from harm. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect employees and others from coronavirus. Employers should know and implement the HSE and government guidance and continuously ask themselves is our workplace COVID-secure?
If you have any concerns over the return to work or would like to discuss any matters relating to your business in general, please get in touch with Jacob Rickett, an experienced lawyer in our Regulatory team, who can be reached on 0121 716 3730 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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