“Covid Secure” Workplace

In conjunction with the Prime Minister’s announcements on 10th and 11th May 2020, a suite of guidance setting out measures intended to assist safe working during the covid-19 pandemic has been published by the Government.  There are eight guides which cover a range of different settings, including construction, factories, labs and research facilities, offices and contact centres and shops.  The guides can be found at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19.

As I mentioned in a recent article, the first step to determine what actions need to be taken to try to create a “covid secure” workplace is to undertake a risk assessment.  As with all risk assessments, those that consider the risks presented by covid-19 must be tailored to the specific workplace concerned.

There are common themes that run through the guidance, particularly in relation to social distancing at work which the government stresses must be maintained, wherever possible.  The guidance across all settings stipulates steps that will usually be needed in relation to workers arriving and leaving work.  These include staggering arrival and departure times, providing additional parking and facilities such as bike racks, limiting the number of people using corporate vehicles, using markings to introduce a one-way flow at entry and exit points, providing hand washing and/or hand sanitiser stations at all entry and exit points and providing alternatives to touch-based entry and exit systems.

Looking at some specifics for each setting:

  1. Offices and Contact Centres

The message remains that everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home.  In the event that there are staff that carry out critical roles such as facility management, operational continuity or regulatory requirements that cannot be performed from home, those operating offices and contact centres should plan for the minimum number of people needed to be on site.  Non-essential trips within the buildings should be discouraged, rotation of job location should be prevented, or at the very least, reduced and rules should be put in place for the use of corridors, stairwells, toilets and lifts.  Markings on the floor can be used to demonstrate to staff how to use these communal areas at a safe distance and the guidance provides example photographs of markings that could be adopted.

In relation to workspaces, the guidance suggests that layouts should be reviewed and screens should be installed where it is not possible to move workstations more than two metres apart.  A plan for the regular disinfection of commonly touched surfaces should also be implemented.

  1. Construction and other outdoor work

The guidance specifies that rotation of equipment should be avoided as should movement between different areas of construction sites.  Employers should consider separating sites into different zones so as to physically segregate groups of workers. Again, the advice suggests the regulation of high traffic areas such as corridors, lifts, turnstiles and walkways in order to maintain the necessary social distancing.  Where there are tasks that cannot be undertaken by one person, the guidance suggests implementing a pairing system whereby two or three people work together consistently and do not interact with others outside of that pairing or group.  Staggering break times and creating outdoor areas for breaks to be taken with plenty of space is also advised.

  1. Shops and branches

In relation to shops and businesses with customer-facing branches (such as banks) the guidance recommends using screens to create physical barriers between staff and customers together with using floor markings to help customers keep a two metre distance.  The guidance suggests avoiding people working face-to-face and, if people cannot work two metres apart, then ensuring that they are working side by side or facing away from one another.

The matters set out in this article are a condensed overview of some the guidance produced by the Government and businesses need to consider the relevant guidance for their specific sectors.

As I set out in a recent article, employers are required by law to undertake or update risk assessments when there is a significant change in the workplace.  The Prime Minister and the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) have made no secret of the fact that businesses will receive spot checks to ensure that employers are complying with their legal obligations and keeping employees safe.  It is therefore imperative that employers undertake risk assessments tailored to their specific workplaces.  Using the guidance published by the Government on 11 May 2020 will help businesses decide which steps should be implemented during the covid-19 pandemic with a view to managing “covid secure” workplaces.

Every employer has a broad legal obligation to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of its employees. All the HSE need to identify in order to bring enforcement action against an employer is that an employee was put at risk of harm.  No actual harm needs to have occurred.  If the HSE considers that an employer has not implemented appropriate measures to control the risks associated with covid-19, that employer could find itself subject to enforcement action or a prosecution.  In turn, this leads to higher insurance premiums, reputational damage and, potentially, a criminal record for the business.  Risk assessments do not need to be overly complex, but, now more than ever, they need to be properly undertaken.

Posted on: 12/05/2020

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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