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The government has issued modified 'Working safely during coronavirus (COVID 19)' guidance (the ‘guidance’) to cover safe working practices following the move to Step 4 of its roadmap that took place on 19 July. Here I will look at the guidance as it relates specifically to working in indoor environments including offices, factories, labs and warehouses.
Whilst there has been the anticipated relaxation of legal requirements, with the government no longer requiring people to work from home as and where they are able, the guidance sets out its expectations and advice for a ‘gradual return’ to the workplace through the course of the summer.
The guidance highlights six ‘priority actions’ employers should now take in order to protect workers and visitors:
As for other potential workplace hazards, employers should complete a health and safety risk assessment in relation to the risks which COVID-19 presents, and identify control measures to be put in place to manage those risks.
Employers have a legal duty to consult with workers on health and safety matters, and staff responses in the course of such discussions could usefully feed back into the risk assessment itself (such input additionally encouraging staff compliance with new safety measures). The finalised risk assessment should be shared with all staff and kept updated alongside developments in the national or individual business’ situation.
Employers should continue to ensure that there is adequate natural or mechanical ventilation in indoor spaces. Where feasible, staff could be encouraged to work from outdoor spaces and should be asked to avoid areas of congestion.
Whilst the wearing of face coverings is no longer mandatory in indoor spaces, employers might consider encouraging their use in enclosed or crowded areas, or (if not already in use) introduce one-way systems and screens to separate people from each other. Limiting the number of people with whom each person has contact through the use of worker bubbles, or ‘cohorting’, could be another appropriate step in minimising the risk of the virus’ spread.
Employers should (continue to) carry out enhanced cleaning routines, especially of surfaces which are touched frequently. Staff should be asked to use hand sanitiser and to wash their hands regularly.
Where practical, workstations should be assigned to an individual. If workstations are shared spaces, provision should be made for them to be cleaned between each individual’s use.
Employers should prevent office outbreaks by not allowing workers or visitors who have had a positive COVID-19 test result, or who display COVID symptoms, to enter the workplace. An employer commits a criminal offence if it knowingly permits a worker who is meant to be self-isolating from coming into the workplace.
Employers might also consider encouraging staff to stay away from the workplace where, for example, the individual has experienced symptoms of COVID-19 but is awaiting their test results, or has been in contact with a person who has since tested positive but has not themselves been ‘pinged’ by NHS Test & Trace.
Disruption might be limited where working from home is possible during an individual worker’s isolation period, but employers should (continue to) have in place contingency plans in cases where self-isolation absences could pose operational difficulties.
Businesses are no longer legally required to collect customer contact details, and do not have to ask people to check in, or turn them away should they refuse.
However, businesses are being asked to continue to encourage check-ins so to support NHS Test and Trace. You could enable checking-in through displaying an NHS QR code poster (see link in the guidance relating to this ‘priority action’ 5), but should then additionally provide a means to record the contact details of people who do not use the app.
Employers should clearly communicate revised safety measures to their staff, and consider how to explain new processes for arrival in advance of those individuals’ physical return to the workplace. You should also consider how to effectively communicate those revised safety measures to contractors and visitors.
Step 4 in practice
So, can employers impose new arrangements as of July 19th?
Essentially, yes – but proceed with caution. Whilst employers could require a return to a contractual workplace from this week, instructing an immediate change to working-from-home arrangements is not recommended. Such requirement would run counter to the government’s careful transitional guidance and its advocating of that ‘gradual’ return, and is unlikely to be well-received by staff. Instead, employers are advised to prepare for a shift to new/ previous arrangements over a period of months. Implementing clear, robust and well-communicated health and safety and return-to-work plans, and adopting a flexible, individualised approach wherever possible, will allow for an easier adjustment for all. As ever, where an employer wants to make changes to contractual arrangements, they will need each worker’s consent.
Overall, the easing of restrictions this week is likely to be a positive though challenging period of adjustment for many employers. There is a great deal to consider in order to minimise the risk to staff and customers as well as to avoid further business disruption – and it is now down to the individual business to determine whether to look towards a return to pre-COVID-19 work life, to continue successful working from home practices, or to trial hybrid patterns of work.
Please contact us on 01295 661488 or firstname.lastname@example.org for further information on implementing a safe and sensitive return to work, or for assistance with individual issues or concerns in this area.
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