It’s fascinating how quickly humans adapt

24 April 2020

As we start to see increased movement of traffic and people starting to go back to the workplace as businesses and health and safety professionals are putting in controls to reduce the risk of COVID-19.  Yet it is going to be a long and challenging journey that requires the ongoing operation across all sectors. That should not come at the cost of workplace safely and employers must be mindful of new risk posed by COVID-19 to the workforce.

How do businesses do this, and do so in compliance with legal obligations, is one of the most frequently asked questions we are being asked. 

Can a business remain open?

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 set out mandated restrictions or closures for a number of businesses. The Regulations also set out the detail of restrictions upon individual movement, stipulating that no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse. 

Where a business concludes that it is not subject to mandatory closure/restriction and it is not reasonably possible for its staff to work from home, operations can continue.

Safety of your workforce

Specific measures introduced in response to the threat posed by COVID-19 should not distract from the more fundamental requirement to ensure the safety of your workforce.  Once established that a workplace remains operational, employers remain to legal comply with their main duties: 

  • undertake a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks arising in its business
  • ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees and non-employees affected by its business

These requirements apply more than ever in the current circumstances. COVID-19 poses an obvious and significant risk that must be assessed, managed and monitored by employers.

In support of the national effort to tackle the threat of COVID-19, HSE have pointed out that the Department of Health & Social Care and Public Health England (PHE) are leading the UK government response to the outbreak. They have also referred businesses to Government Guidance, namely PHE Guidelines issued on 26 March 2020.

The PHE Guidances entitled Guidance for employers and businesses on coronavirus (COVID-19) is therefore a key document use to inform the assessment of risk and implementation of steps to control risk.

PHE Guidance – what does it say?

The PHE Guidance is perhaps the most important reference tool for employers when assessing the risk posed to the workforce and required steps to manage this risk. Practical recommendations include:

  • Employees should maintain a 2 metre distance from others
  • Employees should be provided with facilities to wash their hands (or using hand sanitiser gel if soap and water is not available)
  • Provision of a hand wash station at the entrance of the building, where possible
  • Ensure employees are able to travel to site separately rather than in the same vehicle to ensure social distancing is maintained
  • Provision of company ID and a letter identifying employees as key workers, in case they are challenged by authorities
  • Implement procedures to ensure work areas are cleaned before and after use
  • Where possible, segregate the workforce by physical barriers
  • Ensure employees do not congregate in communal areas such as canteens, cabins, etc.

Compliance with the PHE Guidance does not of itself ensure compliance with health and safety law.

Every employer must carry out its own assessment of the risk and ensure that it can put in place adequate control measures.

Importantly, employers should consider specific work arrangements:

  • Consider any higher risk areas of your organisation. For example, employees with elderly or vulnerable members within their household, pregnant partners, or those with underlying health conditions
  • Consider unique challenges posed by your business and its work environment. Are workers required to visit members of the public’s homes? If so, can they maintain a 2m distance at all times and what additional precautions should be taken? Only in very limited circumstances should work be carried out in any household that is isolating, what precautions will be applied to enforce this?
  • Consider the mundane. How do workers travel to and from work? Do workers routinely lift share? What are access arrangements in your building? Are lifts in shared buildings operational and necessary?

Keep records

You should ensure that every aspect of the above process is documented for future reference. Increasingly clients are being challenged on the steps that have been taken to manage risk in the workplace and so all employers should be prepared to justify the position and to be able to justify your current stance at a future date.

Ongoing Monitoring

Lockdown is set to continue, with social/physical distancing for a significant period of time as the UK continues to battle the spread of the virus. 

It is therefore paramount that employers continue to review the development of the outbreak and updated Guidance as it is issued. Most importantly, they must then reflect upon and appraise existing work practices.

As part of this process, consider what steps are in place to monitor and review arrangements. If a proposed control measure is not being applied it is of no use and may result in an exposure to risk.

The above is intended to provide guidance to businesses navigating this difficult issue. UK industry has an important role to play but must ensure that workforce safety lies at the heart of this.

For further support carrying out these assessments and implementing the required compliance systems within your business, please contact a member of our LCS Health and Safety Team for support.

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