Back to Work

Business is slowly getting going again after the lockdown period. Employers must now ensure that their staff can work safely.

A client sent me an email from a firm of solicitors headed: If A Staff Member Catches Covid-19 Employers Could Face Jail!

Scary eh? We must get the economy going again. There can surely be no dispute about that. Employers are taking cautious steps to get staff back to work, but many are having to struggle with people who are disproportionately scared and refusing to return because they’re afraid of dying. I sometimes quip (indicating it is not for onward transmission to the employee): “Well of course they’re going to die; it probably won’t be this week though!”

OK, I know, I know. Sorry ... :-)

Safety at work

But back to the jail message. This type of marketing hype is irresponsible scare mongering and adds fuel to the flames of fear. And what does it achieve? Bad employers won’t care, and good employers will be scared.

I wrote to my client (who had been horrified by this email) to advise him that employers have an existing duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and others who may be exposed to health risks as a of the employer's activities, including members of the public, service users and contractors, and he is already more than fulfilling his duty. That duty is to do everything "reasonably practicable" to manage the risks. There are already severe penalties in place for serious breaches, so this is nothing new. The best way to demonstrate compliance with the law is usually to follow government and industry-led guidance wherever possible.

Last month the Department for Business set up a number of working groups, and published guidance for a number of different industries.

Once you take the decision to return to work, carry out a thorough risk assessment. We know far more about Covid-19that we did three months ago, though it remains an enigma. You risk assessment should ensure that appropriate control measures are put in place to eliminate the risks associated with returning to work or, where that is not possible, to minimise them.

As well as minimising the risk of the workforce contracting Covid-19, you will need to implement social distancing rules, and with managing any absences among key supervisory staff due to self-isolation requirements.

Keep abreast of the latest guidance from the UK government and the devolved administrations, so that you are able to respond to the likely changes in law and guidance around which businesses can reopen, use of public transport and requirements around personal protective equipment (PPE) as restrictions are lifted or tightened again.

Talk to your employees about any arrangements put in place to control the risks associated with the coronavirus. Make sure you communicate, train where appropriate the processes and keep a record that you have done so. Monitor and manage.

You have specific legal duties which might be relevant to the return to work process, including:

  • management of health and safety including risk assessment, safe systems of work and providing information, instruction, supervision and training to employees;
  • the provision and use of PPE;
  • the safe use of equipment and machinery at work;
  • management of the workplace, including cleanliness, ventilation, enough space, toilet and wash facilities and safe pedestrian routes;
  • the use of chemicals and substances hazardous to health, and managing the risks posed by biological agents such as Covid-19.

The UK government has issued guidance to help employers get their businesses back up and running and workplaces operating safely. It focuses on five main points:

  • people should work from home where they can;
  • employers should carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions. Businesses with more than 50 employees are expected to publish the results of this risk assessment on their website;
  • two-metre social distancing should be maintained where possible. This may require employers to redesign workspaces, stagger start times, create one-way systems, open more exits and entrances and change seating in breakout rooms;
  • where two metres cannot be maintained, the transmission risk should be managed - for example, through barriers in shared spaces, changing shift patterns, fixing teams to minimise contact or ensuring colleagues face away from each other;
  • reinforcing cleaning processes and providing more handwashing facilities and hand sanitiser.

Additional guidance has been published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It identifies issues employers should consider when assessing risk and potential control measures.

The return to work is likely to be on a phased basis. Those who can work from home may need to continue to do so for a period while others begin to return to the workplace.

Remember that you have the same health and safety responsibilities towards those working from home as for any other workers, and the HSE has issued specific guidance on protecting home workers.

Keep safe and healthy.

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DISCLAIMER

Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.