Returning to work in the coronavirus world: Part 1 – Workplace
Part 2 of this series will look at issues which employers may face with their staff returning to work, and Part 3 will explore issues around working from home on a more permanent basis.
Firstly, and most importantly, it remains the case that everyone who can work at home should continue to do so, and only those who cannot work from home and who have to go into a workplace, should do so. For those in this situation, detailed government guidance has been issued regarding workplace safety, covering eight different categories of work. The Health and Safety Executive has also issued guidance to supplement this. Both these should be carefully read when considering necessary steps to take.
The guidance does not supersede existing legislation including health and safety, employment law and equalities. Below, we examine some of the key points about which employers need to be aware.
Workplace Health and Safety
Risk assessments must be carried out. The Government recommends publishing results of risk assessments, especially for employers with over 50 employees, setting out the steps being taken by the organisation to provide for a safe environment. Businesses with over five employees must have a written record of the risk assessment. The Government has produced a Notice which it is encouraging all employers to display in the workplace, setting out the five steps which employees should take to ensure safety.
Assessments must address the risks of Covid-19 and identify sensible and relevant measures to control risks in the workplace and implement social distancing. These will vary from workplace to workplace.
There is a duty to consult employees regarding health and safety, and this needs to be either with a union or employee health and safety representative. A summary of the Covid-19 related risks should be published.
Employers should consider carefully whether each and every one of their employees actually needs to go into the workplace if they can continue to work from home.
Bear in mind that there is also a duty on employees to comply with provisions put in place to ensure their safety and that of others. Employees who do not follow the guidelines set out by their employers should be disciplined.
Businesses must be mindful of equality legislation and to treat everybody equally. Employees with disabilities should continue to have their reasonable adjustments implemented and monitored. The health and safety of pregnant employees or those newly returned to work from maternity leave must be assessed. Employers must ensure that any steps taken do not have a negative impact which is not justifiable against, for instance, those who have child caring responsibilities, or religious commitments.
Preparation for reopening premises – recommendations
- Thorough deep clean of all surfaces and ensure ventilation.
- Check air-conditioning units are working.
- Ensure regular system of cleaning on ongoing basis once premises reopen.
- Provide signage to remind people of social distancing, regular hand washing and use of hand sanitisers.
Steps to managing risk
- Ensure there is an up to date health and safety policy in place and implemented alongside the risk assessment – and that all employees have access to it.
- Measures must ensure social distancing is implemented. If an activity cannot encompass social distancing (for instance meetings with several people in confined places), consideration should be given as to whether it needs to take place at all, or can take place in a different location.
- Emphasise frequent hand washing with antibacterial hand soap, which should be readily available.
- Ensure frequent wiping down of common parts surfaces i.e. lift buttons.
- Implement social distancing regarding desks and not have people working opposite each other unless with barriers; side-by-side, back to back, or with adequate space in between.
- General use of screens or barriers to separate people.
- One way signed routes for staff to follow to reduce contact.
- Reduce number of people working together; work in teams which do the same shifts to avoid crossover.
- Some businesses may find it appropriate or desirable to install thermal cameras at entrances to monitor the temperature of those entering the building and those who have a raised temperature should not be allowed to proceed further and should be sent home.
- Some businesses may look at asking people to complete questionnaires regarding their health although there may be data protection issues here so care needs to be taken.
- Most importantly, assess any employees vulnerable to Covid-19.
Flexibility in coming and going from work
- Staggering work start/finish times so that people come and go at different times and are able to avoid peak travel if they taking public transport.
- Increased entry points to the workplace to reduce congestion at peak times with one way routes for entry and exit.
- If possible, increase parking spaces if people are driving to work, and install bike racks to encourage people to cycle.
- Increase storage for clothes and bags especially if people are walking to work.
- Place hand sanitisers at all entry and exit points and consider deactivating electronic cards for entry and exit to reduce contact – have someone on hand to check them visually.
- Limit passengers in corporate vehicles i.e. minibuses and leaving space between each passenger.
- Ensure lifts only take one person at a time.
Movement around workplace premises
- One way flow of people traffic with clear floor markings as to direction of flow.
- Reduce the amount of times people need to move around i.e. non-essential trips around the building or outside.
- Restricting access only to those who need it.
- Reducing job and location rotation.
- Regulating areas where there is a high density of people traffic such as entries, exits and turnstiles.
- Ensure disabled people have access to a lift.
Workstations - consider the following
- Ensure workstations are 2m apart if at all possible.
- Avoid sharing of tools and computers, pens, telephones.
- Avoid hot desks.
- Hand sanitisers in all meeting rooms.
Shared premises – points to consider with common parts
- Work collaboratively with other businesses and the landlord to ensure safety in common parts and that there is clear social distancing and direction of people traffic flow in receptions, staircases, lifts.
- If there is a communal canteen in the building, stagger times at which businesses access. Or alternatively provide packed food for people to avoid opening a canteen or encourage people to bring their own food.
- Install screens in reception area common parts to protect receptionists and front line staff.
- Reconfigure communal seating areas to reduce face-to-face interactions.
- Regulate use of locker rooms and changing areas to reduce concurrent usage.
Minimise unnecessary visits to business premises
- Encourage remote contact such as zoom meetings rather than face-to-face.
- Guidance on social distancing where visitors are required.
- Limit on the number of visitors in any one day and limiting to specific time window.
- Look at schedules for essential site visits from contractors and suppliers to schedule these at times where they have least contact with those on the premises.
- Avoid the need to sign in; provide separate pens; or sign people in via the reception staff so that the same pen is used by one person.
Deliveries - inbound and outbound goods
- Minimise unnecessary contact at security.
- Use non-contact signature confirmation where possible.
- If possible reduce the frequency of deliveries by having larger deliveries more spaced out.
- Where possible have single workers load or unload.
- Encourage drivers to stay in their vehicles where at all possible provided their welfare and safety is not compromised.
- Enable drivers to access welfare facilities where needed consistent with other guidance.
Use of PPE
Unless jobs expressly require the use of PPE, this is not considered necessary in an office workplace setting unless it is currently being used. The most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus are through social distancing and hygiene. In a workplace setting, PPE offers very limited additional protection. This should be taken into account during the risk assessment process.
The most important thing is clear and consistent communication regarding the need for social distancing, hygiene, and all the steps taken to ensure maximum protection to people working within an enclosed environment, and those who are visiting it. This comprises clear signage, regular reminders of the importance of adhering to all the highlighted steps, and monitoring these, alongside regular engagement with employees to ensure compliance.
Aspects of advice not contained within government guidance
There are some key points which have not been addressed in the government guidance and these are:
- Requesting staff to take tests to identify whether they have coronavirus. Consent would be needed for the tests and there is a data protection aspect to requesting staff to take such tests and the information which those tests provide.
- Asking staff to have their temperature taken on arrival at the office, again to identify a raised temperature and possible ill health.
- Employees have a duty to self-report if they feel unwell in order to protect, not just themselves, but others. This should be emphasised to all staff.
- Data protection compliance, especially if using tests or temperature monitors, and if employers want to ask employees and visitors to complete certain questionnaires. There is no reference to this in the guidance and it is something which should be very carefully considered when dealing with sensitive personal information because of the risk of breaches and possible reporting to the ICO. It is essential that requests are made and consent given before any such tests or questionnaires are applied.
- Sickness absence should be kept under regular review. Note any changes in sickness absence patterns and the reasons for such absences.
- The importance of compliance with health and safety policies should be highlighted. This should be kept in the forefront of employees' minds.
- Employers should be very wary of encouraging staff to continue working where there is a clear coronavirus risk, either to them in the working environment, or staff if they are unwell.
HSE and enforcement
A complaint may be made to the HSE or the local authority with regard to businesses not operating a safe system of work. The burden will be on the employer to demonstrate that it
has taken appropriate steps to address the concerns raised. If they have not, they can be prosecuted, fined, convicted or (very rarely) committed to prison.
More likely is the issue of an Improvement Notice to enforce certain steps to be taken to rectify the non-compliance. However the HSE can recover costs of the issue of the Notice from the business concerned.
Lack of a risk assessment is an offence contrary to HSE requirements.