As many businesses begin to re-open their work premises, it’s worth bearing in mind that the HSE has been given an extra £14 million to enable it to help manage the return to work phase of the COVID pandemic.
Whilst some of this funding will be being used to fund advice and guidance, a significant proportion is ear marked for inspections and there has much publicity recently by the HSE of increased inspections being carried out in areas where the infection rate remains high, as well in connection with industries which have recently come under media scrutiny for alleged poor COVID safeguards.
This insight will set out and examine the steps employers need to undertake to ensure they are meeting these obligations and mitigate the risk of any action being taken by the HSE as they check employers are fulfilling their duties through the use of site visits, phone calls, and visual evidence.
COVID-19 risk assessment
Employers will be required to take reasonable steps to protect workers and others from coronavirus. The employer will have the following duties:
- identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus;
- think about who could be at risk;
- decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed; and
- act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk.
The HSE has made available a template COVID-19 Risk Assessment form, and this is a good starting point for any employer wanting to undertake a comprehensive risk assessment:
The HSE also suggests consulting with employees about the steps being considered as a way to keep the workforce informed and ensure the measures are sufficient.
Cleaning, washing, and hygiene
Employers will need to ensure the work premises are kept clean throughout the day and this can be achieved by considering several actions:
- Providing sufficient handwashing facilities across the workplace including hand sanitiser;
- Where employees are travelling in and out of vehicles, and deliveries are being made transporting goods – ensuring all relevant individuals have access to hand sanitiser before entering the premises;
- Keeping equipment clean and ensuring cleaning regimes are strictly enforced; and
- Using signs and posters to help workers practice good handwashing technique and reminding them to cough/sneeze into an arm and avoid touching their faces.
Employers should ensure employees are aware of the duty to remain two metres apart from each other, or at least one metre where this is not possible. The HSE has provided some guidance on measures employers can take to ensure social distancing is safely practised by employees at the workplace, with key measures including:
- using floor tape or paint to mark work areas;
- providing signage to remind people to keep a 2 m distance;
- using screens to create a physical barrier between people;
- having people working side-by-side rather than face-to-face;
- limiting movement of people:
- rotating between jobs and equipment;
- using lifts and work vehicles;
- in high-traffic areas like corridors, turnstiles and walkways; and
- allowing only essential trips within buildings and between sites.
More information on social distancing guidance can be found on the HSE website.
Managing transmission risk
In addition to the steps outlined above, employers should also be alive to managing the spread of the virus more generally.
Of note are employees who are vulnerable / shielded. These are workers who suffer from an increased risk of the virus (or workers who live with shielded individuals). The HSE suggests employers talk to shielded workers about their working arrangements and take every possible step to enable them to work from home. Where this is not possible, employers should regularly review their risk assessment, and do everything ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect these individuals. Any evidence that employers can provide to prove they have considered how to protect these workers will ensure employers are protected from recourse from the HSE.
It is also useful to note that face coverings and masks are not currently required in workplaces in a non-clinical setting. However, the situation remains ever evolving and at the end of this Insight are links to the latest government and HSE guidance which should be consulted regularly to ensure the most up to date practices are being followed. The HSE also has a specialist note on the use of face coverings and face masks which may be helpful to consult as a first step when considering their use.
Employer’s doing their part
The HSE have commented that the most common issues facing employers with regard to COVID and the workplace include:
- failing to provide arrangements for monitoring;
- supervising and maintaining social distancing;
- failing to introduce an adequate cleaning regime (particularly at busy times of the day); and
- providing access to welfare facilities to allow employees to frequently wash their hands with warm water and soap.
While the HSE have suggested their priority during the outbreak is to support businesses by providing advice and guidance, enforcement action and even prosecution remains an option where employers fail to manage the risk and commit, for example, any of the failings listed above. Therefore, it is critical that employers continue to manage, monitor, and assess the spread of Covid in its workplace.
More information on the issues raised in this Insight is available in the HSE’s short guidance note on working safely during the outbreak, and it can be found here.