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Preparing you for a return to the workplace

Following the release of the UK Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, updated guidance has been issued to assist employers and employees to manage the risks of Covid-19 as the workforce in England returns to work. You can read this here

From a health and safety perspective, there are practical steps that businesses should take before the workforce returns from furlough and/or homeworking:

  • Policies and procedures will need to be kept under review and updated in light of changes in legislation and guidance.
  • If you are implementing a phased return to the workplace, your risk assessment and return to work planning will need to keep pace with changes in your workplaces.
  • Employers should keep a register of vulnerable staff and staff who have been infected or required to isolate.
  • A system of keeping in touch with absent staff will help to keep mental health and wellbeing under review.
  • It is advisable to speak to isolating employees to ensure they do not return to work with coronavirus symptoms or when a member of their household has symptoms.

Legal overview

Employers have an obligation to carry out appropriate risk assessments to identify hazards, and implement all ‘reasonably practicable’ measures to limit the risks.  Where risks cannot be eliminated, they should be mitigated to the lowest possible level.

In compiling risk assessments, employers have a duty to consult their workforce.  They need to provide adequate training, information and instruction to their employees, along with protective clothing and equipment necessary to enable them to carry out their duties safely. There are duties in relation to handling of chemicals and other dangerous substances, keeping workplaces well maintained with adequate facilities. This list is by no means exhaustive.

The guidance

The Government released its COVID-19 Recovery Strategy and COVID-19 Secure Guidelines, eight  sector specific guidance documents have been released.  These Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance documents set out the Government’s expectations for employers planning their return to work. 

The HSE has also issued useful guidance which can be accessed here https://www.hse.gov.uk/news/working-safely-during-coronavirus-outbreak.htm.

We expect further sector specific guidance to be issued as more businesses are allowed to re-open.  It is very important that guidance is followed correctly.  Any employers departing from the guidance will need to be able to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonably practicable steps to keep workers and visitors safe.  

Preparing to return to work   

You will need to ensure you have a COVID-19 risk assessment that applies to all parts of your operation.  It should cover all of your workplaces, your workforce, and your activities. 

The guidance will assist employers to prepare their risk assessment, addressing such steps as:

  • Encouraging continued homeworking where this is possible. Where staff are working from home, consider desk top assessments and risks associated with a home-based workforce.
  • Maintaining social distancing of 2m, or where this is not possible, other mitigation measures like masks and back to back working. This will be challenging in high traffic areas like stairs, lifts, corridors, staff facilities, changing rooms.  Most businesses will find they cannot maintain a 2m distance in all areas, and some may have to restrict access to areas that cannot be appropriately mitigated.
  • Availability of handwashing facilities and sanitisers, wipes and facilities for maintaining hygiene within all parts of the business.
  • Cleaning of workplaces, equipment, vehicles, plant and machinery, and other work items. A particular focus should be on touch points like door handles and push plates, keypads, photocopier screens, lift buttons, handrails etc.
  • Reducing the headcount in the workplace by introducing shifts, known as cohorts, staggering start and finish times, or restricting visitors or customers.
  • Restricting employees’ travel, preventing direct contact, replacing face to face meetings with video calls and discouraging deliveries into the building.
  • Use of PPE including masks, gloves eyewear, protective aprons and visors depending on the assessment of risk.
  • Replace paper forms with emails and electronic records, restricting the use of shared pens, key fobs and telephones.
  • Using screens and barriers to reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Measures to ensure that good mental health and wellbeing is promoted.

Employers will need to assess their workplaces, workforce and visitors to ensure that they have adequate steps in place to mitigate the risk as far as possible.  Most workplaces will not be able to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 altogether.

Vulnerable staff

The Government guidance on vulnerable (high risk) and extremely vulnerable (very high risk) individuals suggest it is possible for vulnerable employees to continue working, but most extremely vulnerable employees have been advised to shield or self isolate. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19

Employers will need to identify staff who are high risk, very high risk, or who live with family members who fall into these categories.   All workplaces should maintain a register of vulnerable staff, and when completing risk assessments decide what addition steps are necessary to protect these individuals. 

It may be necessary to assign vulnerable staff different roles or additional protective equipment.  Care should be taken to distinguish between those employees who want to return to work, and those who can safely return to work.

Consultation and publishing your risk assessment

There is a duty to consult employees on your risk assessment There is no prescribed format in law or guidance to that consultation.

We suggest you consider asking your workforce for suggestions on mitigation measures.  Many staff know their roles very well, and that familiarity often prompts good ideas.  Secondly, this process can identify risks that have been overlooked.   Thirdly, it gives employees an opportunity to input into the planning phase, which helps to address their concerns about returning to work.  It is useful for employers to know how their employees are feeling about coming back.

Government guidance advises employers to share the risk assessment with employeesBusinesses employing over 50 people are directed to publish their risk assessments on their websites where this is possible.  Employers of third parties who come into your workforce will want to know how you are managing the risk to their employees.

The impact of COVID-19 measures on usual operations

Once employers have identified how they will mitigate the risks of coronavirus, it is important to consider the impact of those measures on other risks.   For example, where the workforce is separated into shifts, do you need to train more first aiders or fire marshals?  Do masks and eyewear impact upon communications between members of staff?  Will it be necessary to train staff who are undertaking additional duties, or who are being asked to work in different ways? 

Employers must review their risk assessments where there is reason to suspect it is no longer valid, or where there is a significant change in the matters to which the risk assessment relates.  The impact of COVID-19 is very likely to cause significant changes to many operations, and hence will require other risk assessments to be reviewed. 

Procedures for dealing with infection in your workplace

You will need to provide your employees with guidance on:

  • How to recognise the symptoms of COVID-19.
  • What to do if they develop symptoms.
  • What to do if someone in the workplace develops symptoms.
  • How to arrange testing.

Track and Trace and the NHS Covid-19 App

The Government currently have a track and trace program in place and individuals must self- isolate for 14 days if they are contacted as a result of being close to someone who has contracted the virus.  This may have significant impacts for your workplace if one of your staff members tests positive.  It is recommended that you retain the ability to have staff work from home where they can do so.

The NHS Covid-19 App is being trialled on the Isle of White.  If released to the rest of the population, it could provide a valuable resource for tracking the risk of infection in your workplace. However, it works most effectively when it is downloaded by many people, and Bluetooth is on.   If you have a policy of no mobile phones in the workplace, this may need to be reviewed.   Employers will also need to consider what happens if numbers of staff are directed to self-isolate for 14 days. 

Training obligations

Employers will need to consider training needs of a returning workforce.  This may include;

  • Refresher training after a period of absence from the workplace.
  • Training in new ways of working to address COVID-19 risks.
  • Training in any changes to existing health and safety policies and procedures.

A lack of training may result in policies and procedures being incorrectly implemented, or risks not being adequately managed. It also suggests that not all ‘reasonably practicable’ measures have been implemented to minimise risks.

 

I can support you in making sure your health & safety is legally watertight. If you have any questions or would like to discuss any aspect of your health and safety workplace plans and policies, please contact myself and the team on 0113 849 4072 or email craigburman@schofieldsweeney.co.uk.

 

About the Author

Craig Burman

Partner

Craig advises nationally on contentious and non-contentious environmental, health and safety and regulatory…

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