COVID-19: making workplaces coronavirus secure

Please Note: All information correct at time of writing on 12 May 2020. We do our very best to make sure our information is as up to date as possible, but we’d encourage you to check out our latest articles and to check the government website for updates as they happen.

Last night (Monday 11 May) the government published ‘Working Safely during Coronavirus (COVID-19)’ which sets out guidelines on what employers need to do to make their businesses COVID secure.

Yesterday the PM stressed that:

“employers will not be allowed to get away with forcing people to work in conditions which are not COVID Secure” and promised "more inspections from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) including random spot inspections to check that companies are doing the right thing."  

At the press conference, he urged employees that if they feel that they are being asked to work in conditions which are unsafe, “they should immediately report it and we will take action”.

Last night the government also announced that the HSE would be getting an additional £14 million for extra call centre employees, inspectors and equipment.

The guidance is actually eight separate guides which cover a range of different types of workplace environments and many businesses will need to refer to multiple guides to cover the different workplaces within their business, for example, an office and a factory.

The workplace environments covered are:

  • Construction and outdoor work (construction, energy and utilities, farming and agriculture, forestry, waste management and other infrastructure, railway services and street and highway services)
  • Factories plant and warehouses (manufacturing and chemical plants, food and other large processing plants, warehouses, distribution centres, port operations)
  • Homes ( guidance for people working in, visiting or delivering to other people’s homes e.g. repair services, trades, cleaners)
  • Labs and research facilities (engineering centres, clean rooms, prototyping centres, wet labs, wind tunnels, computer labs, simulators, material development labs, specialist testing rooms)
  • Offices and contact centres and operations rooms
  • Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery including mobile and contract catering
  • Shops and branches (currently open shops such as chemists and food retailers and non-food stores, fashion stores and other types of retail currently closed. Branches include banks and money businesses)
  • Vehicles (couriers, mobile workers, lorry drivers, on-site transit, work vehicles, field forces)

Application of the workplace guides

The guides set out practical steps to make workplaces as safe as possible to continue or re-open and have been developed in consultation with businesses, unions and industry leaders. Many businesses will need to refer to multiple guides to cover the different workplaces within their business, for example, an office and a factory.

The guides are non-statutory and apply to England. For advice to businesses in other parts of the UK see guidance set by the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government.

The guides do not supersede existing legal obligations and when applying the guidance employers must take into account agency workers, contractors and others.

The guides recommend taking action now if you haven’t already done so and for those currently operating, review the guides to identify further improvements.

Consultation with employees and communication of risk assessment outcomes to everyone including visitors about ongoing safety measures is required. A notice has been created to display and show the guidance has been followed:

If you want to take a closer look at the industry-specific guidance, the full eight guides can be found here.

There are five key points which “should be implemented as soon as practical”.

Work from home if you can

Employers should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option. The guidance states that “all reasonable steps” should be taken by employers to help people work from home. This means assessing who is needed on-site and planning for the minimum number needed to operate safely and effectively. For homeworkers, this means monitoring well-being and keeping in contact as well as practical support such as access to software.

Homeworking should continue for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals and for individuals who have symptoms of COVID-19 and must self-isolate under existing government guidance as well as those who live in a household with someone who has symptoms.

Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions

Recognising that employers cannot completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace and for those who cannot work from home, employers will have to do this to establish what measures to put in place and make every reasonable effort to comply. The guidance states “If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and we expect all businesses with over 50 employees to do so." The ‘if possible’ part may relate to businesses that don’t have a website.

Assessment of clinically vulnerable individuals who cannot work from home and those who live with clinically extremely vulnerable individuals should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles as well as taking into account specific duties to new and expectant mothers and others with protected characteristics under the Equality Act (the employment law team can advise on this).

Maintain 2-metre social distancing, wherever possible

Each guide contains sector-specific control measures. These are titled “steps that will usually be needed”.

Every reasonable effort is needed to assess how practical these steps will be and whether they can be implemented in their workplace. Employers will need a clear rationale for not implementing the sector-specific control measures contained in the guides.

Employers will need to redesign workplaces to maintain 2-metre social distancing looking at how people come to and leave work, move around buildings and worksites, stay safe at desks or workstations, meeting arrangements, safety in common areas and how to manage accidents security and other incidents.

Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate.

Each guide’s sector-specific control measures have not been listed here – refer to separate guides and new Atlas example risk assessments (currently being created).

Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk

Employers should look into mitigating actions which are listed in the “managing risks” section of the guides and in this order as:

  • Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
  • Homeworking as a first option
  • Applying social distancing guidelines (keeping people 2m apart) and for activities where social distancing cannot be followed, re-assessing whether it needs to continue for the business to operate (with control measures)
  • Further mitigating actions including:
    • Shorter duration activities where possible
    • Putting barriers or screens in shared spaces and to separate people from each other
    • Colleagues facing away from each other or side-to-side wherever possible
    • Managing the workforce by creating workplace shift patterns or fixed teams, avoiding unnecessary work travel and where unavoidable introducing measures to manage transmission
    • Managing transmission around inbound and outbound goods

The guides acknowledge that there may be some face-to-face work “for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners” and advises employers to review if it and how it can be safely carried out. This is when PPE/RPE, as a last resort should be considered.

Reinforcing cleaning processes

Workplaces will have to be cleaned more frequently, before re-opening and whilst open paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles, tools, keyboards as well as changing rooms, showers and toilets. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points and encourage / provide reminders about hand hygiene.

PPE and face coverings

Guidance on the use of PPE when managing the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace is clear and repeated in each of the guides: "additional PPE beyond what you usually wear is not beneficial" and COVID-19 risk needs to be managed through other mitigating actions. It states that "workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19". The exception to this is clinical settings. Assessment of PPE when carrying out risk assessments needs to take this into account and acknowledge the limitations to it providing additional protection.

PPE such as face masks and gloves should not be introduced as a control measure for managing the risk of COVID-19 unless the risk assessment shows it is required where all other social distancing measures are not possible, and the work must continue. Where PPE is provided it must be free of charge to workers who need it (agency workers and sub-contractors should be included in risk assessments).

Guidance on the use and provision of face coverings is less indisputable stating "there are some circumstances when wearing a face covering may be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure". The guides do clearly state, however, that face coverings are not the same as PPE, that they are not a replacement for other mitigating action which should be considered and that they are optional in the workplace. Even though it is optional, the guidance adds that employers should give information and instruction on their safe use e.g. hand hygiene, cleaning and replacement.

The guidance also contains a downloadable notice which employers should display in their workplaces “to show their employees, customers and other visitors to their workplace, that they have followed this guidance”.

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