In depth

Coronavirus: health and safety in the manufacturing industry

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Parts of the manufacturing industry are currently exempt from the Government list of businesses and industries which must close in the face of the Covid-19 crisis.

It is not quite as easy as saying keep calm and carry on, however, because current announcements have not changed the existing regulatory landscape or disapplied any of the existing safety or environmental permitting rules. Even without Covid-19 manufacturing businesses operate in a heavily regulated environment, of which health & safety, environmental protection and water discharge regimes are key elements.

What, if anything has the Covid-19 crisis changed, and what are the responsibilities of employers and directors in such circumstances?

Overarching obligations

The key safety responsibilities remain in force under the following legislation:

  1. Sections 2 and 3 of the Health & Safety At Work Etc Act 1974 (“HSAW”) - the obligation to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of your employees and also contractors and visitors to your sites.
  2. Section 7 of HSAW - the obligation of employees to act responsibly in relation to their own health & safety and to the health & safety of others in the workplace.
  3. The Management of Health & Safety At Work Regulation 1999 – these Regulations encapsulate (amongst other things) the duties to carry out a risk assessment of all activities and to keep such assessments under review.
  4. Section 37 of HSAW – in simple terms Section 37 of HSAW creates personal liability for Directors, Officers and Managers where it can be shown that the business committed an offence through the neglect, consent or connivance of the Director, Officer or Manager.

There are parallel provisions under Environmental Protection legislation and the Water Industry Act. Manufacturing sites are busy places employing people from different sectors and trades. Many will travel from outside the immediate locality of the working location and may need to use public transport. In the light of Covid-19, all these issues need to be safely and appropriately managed if the plant is to stay open.

At the same time as taking steps to minimise the spread of infection through social distancing and hygiene arrangements, the normal health and safety requirements of any ongoing activity must not be compromised.

The basic rules which must be followed at all times remain essential in the current environment – if an activity cannot be carried out safely due to lack of competent personnel or as a consequence of social distancing then it should not take place. This may make certain activities difficult to manage and undertake and will inevitably impact those on the ground making decisions in real-time.

Director and employer responsibilities

In the current climate, these stem largely from employer obligations, so it is essential that there are ongoing assessment and review to ensure the plant can be operated safely and the business can demonstrate that it has fulfilled its obligations as an employer. If the business has fulfilled its obligations, then so too have its directors! As well as new procedures to deal with self-isolation and someone falling ill whilst at work, adaptation of existing procedures will be required to address social distancing and minimising the spread of infection.

It should also be borne in mind that emergency services are under pressure and response times will be greatly reduced in the event of an accident. Additional resources may not be available at all, let alone quickly enough for urgent issues on site so these factors will need to be considered in the context of environmental or water discharge responsibilities on site too.

Policies to implement and/or adapt

Every manufacturing site will need new or adapted policies to address the following issues:

  • Self-isolation;
  • Procedures if someone falls ill or is injured;
  • Travel to site including increased and appropriate parking arrangements with the decline of public transport use, hand cleaning facilities at entrances and exits;
  • Site access points - which should include consideration of the following issues:
    • Reducing the number of access points;
    • Restriction of non-essential visitors;
    • Monitoring/social distancing;
    • Removing touch pads on gates but maintaining security;
    • Hand sanitisation/washing at access points;
    • Cleaning common surfaces;
    • Site inductions – how can you do them safely;
  • Deliveries – drivers safety, loading and unloading;
  • Hand washing/hand sanitisation;
  • Toilet facilities – restricting communal use and making the facilities sufficient;
    • Regular cleaning of facilities;
    • Social distancing;
  • Canteens / eating arrangements / welfare arrangements:
    • No cafes can be operated so workers will have to bring their own food which should be pre-prepared and can be unwrapped;
    • Social distancing must be applied and all surfaces thoroughly cleaned regularly; stagger breaks to reduce congestion;
    • Provision of hand sanitiser at entrances / elsewhere;
    • Removal of rubbish/waste and storage to avoid contamination;
  • Changing facilities - social distancing/keeping clean;
  • Close working:
    • Social distancing to apply - work needs planning to minimise contact and maintain social distancing;
    • Non-essential work that requires close contact should be stopped;
    • Reusable PPE should be thoroughly cleaned and not shared between workers;
    • Single-use PPE should be disposed of;
    • If the buildings being constructed include lifts reduce capacity to avoid congestion/use stairs if available;
    • Regular cleaning of vehicle cabs between operators;
    • Site meetings – ensuring social distancing if meetings must take place in person/use technology wherever possible.
  • Site Supervision and manpower – have you still got the people available to do the job safely, taking into account the new requirements concerning social distancing

Final thought

Taking all of the above into account, employers will have to look at each site and decide whether they can stay open safely in whole or in part. Going through the process of evaluating the risk and then introducing new procedures wherever necessary will enable a business to demonstrate it has fulfilled its statutory responsibilities in the event of any challenge or enforcement in the future. Continuing to operate without undergoing any evaluation is not an advisable option as there is too much ambiguity in what the Government has been saying to safely leave this to the individual common sense and decision making of site managers and contractors. Events are moving fast and things may change on a daily basis so it is crucially important to keep all operations under daily review and ready to change tack at short notice.

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