A crucial time to assess workplace risks

As the Prime Minister moves towards setting out plans for easing the lockdown, businesses are giving thought to what this may mean for getting employees back into workplaces that have been closed.

At the time of writing, the UK remains in lockdown and the Government requires anyone that can work from home to do so.  Whilst adhering to the rules, many in the business community are putting plans in place for the next transitional phase.  When considering how to do this, employers are balancing interests that may, at first, seem at odds.  Those being trying to ensure that the business can function and jobs are protected whilst continuing to prioritise the health, safety and welfare of employees.

The broad position is that there is a legal duty on all employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees.  This has presented many challenges during the covid-19 pandemic.

It has been well documented with the introduction of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (“Regulations”) that during what is referred to in the Regulations as the “emergency period” non essential shops and public venues must remain closed.

The Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) has provided some helpful guidance for employees during the outbreak.  The HSE has, however, also made it clear that it will issue enforcement notices to ensure improvements in workplaces which should be complying with the emergency legislation and are simply not doing so.

The extent to which the current restrictions will remain in place is yet to be determined, but a practical starting point for any plan for when the restrictions are eased is risk assessment.  Employers are required by law to undertake or update their risk assessments when there is a significant change.  Reviewing workplace risk assessments at this juncture not only allows an employer to comply with its legal requirements, but is a simple preparatory tool.   

Whilst employers with fewer than five employees are not required to keep written risk assessments, it is always advisable to keep a written record of any risk assessment undertaken. 

Risk assessments do not need to be complex, but it is crucial that they are tailored to the particular workplace being assessed.  The basic requirements are that the assessment (i) identifies any hazards in the workplace, (ii) identifies who may be harmed by those hazards (employees, visitors, members of the public) and how, (iii) includes an assessment of the risk of those people being harmed by the hazard, (iv) considers precautions that can be taken to eradicate or minimise those risks and (v) sets out means of implementing those precautions and how implementation will be checked.

When considering the current situation, examples of key risks to be assessed are as follows.  Please note that the following are simple examples and an employer’s risk assessment should be tailored to the workplace concerned taking account of all risks and measures that can be implemented:

  1. Employees who have no symptoms spreading covid-19 to co-workers. This may be a risk if employees are touching communal surfaces such as door handles, worktops or, something as simple as, the handle of a shared kettle.  There is also an obvious risk of this occurring if employees are working in close proximity.  Employers will need to consider measures to tackle these risks such as segregation of the workforce to adhere to the social distancing guidelines, encouragement of personal hygiene, hand washing and regular disinfection of surfaces.
  2. The risk of covid-19 existing and remaining on surfaces. Again, this could be tackled by hand hygiene and implementation of a schedule for the regular disinfection of surfaces identified as being a risk.
  3. An employee developing symptoms of covid-19. Employers need to consider what steps should be taken if this occurs.  Steps should include sending the employee home (or for medical assessment depending on the severity of the symptoms), identifying those who have been in contact with the employee and identifying the surfaces that the employee concerned has recently touched.  Pre-determined measures to deal with this situation can then be implemented.

If employers give proper consideration to assessing the risks that will be presented when the lockdown is eased, and communicate the necessary precautions to their workforce effectively, they will stand a better chance of controlling the risks and keeping their workforce safe.

Posted on: 07/05/2020

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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