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Employee health and safety in the workplace during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis

A new set of guidelines has been issued to help employers ensure the safety of the workplace for those employees who have to return to work.

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As an employer, you’re responsible for the health and safety of your employees. You must assess and manage the risks your staff will face when returning to work. This includes the risk of contracting Coronavirus.

Before asking your employees to return, you should:

  • deep clean the premises 

  • perform a health and safety assessment and/or Return to work risk assessment to determine what potential risks there are in the physical workplace

  • assess whether any adjustments need to be made before re-opening to maintain social distancing and personal hygiene, implement flexible workforce arrangements, and to accommodate those with protected characteristics

  • update your health and safety policy to include Coronavirus-related safety measures

If you decide to recall your employees to work, consider who is needed on-site and make a plan on how they can work safely and effectively. You should limit the employees you recall to only those with roles that are critical for business and operational continuity and whose work can’t be done remotely. Care should be taken to ensure that the criteria for recall aren’t discriminatory and that asking certain individuals to return to work won’t unjustly negatively impact a particular group. 

Workers that are clinically vulnerable should be allowed to work from home as much as possible in their current role or in an alternate role. If this isn’t viable, then you should offer them the safest available roles on site so they can stay 2 metres away from others. Where social distancing isn’t possible, you should assess whether their role is necessary for the business and whether you can safeguard their wellbeing by making reasonable adjustments.

With regards to workers that are considered as clinically extremely vulnerable, the Government has advised against them working outside their homes. 

It is crucial for you to remind employees that they should self-isolate if they are, or a member of their household is, experiencing symptoms of Coronavirus.

If you’re seeking to recall furloughed staff to work, make your Furlough letter for previously furloughed employees with Rocket Lawyer.

In order to assess the potential exposure of your employees to Coronavirus you should consider carrying out a new risk assessment. When considering the risk of infection, you must take into account which employees may be more vulnerable to contracting the virus (eg pregnant, eldery or with any underlying health conditions) and whether social distancing can be followed in the workplace. When conducting a risk assessment you must consult your employees and a health and safety representative.

You should share the results of your risk assessment with your employees. If you have more than 50 employees, publish these results on your website. A notice of compliance should also be displayed at the workplace.

Lastly, you should also be mindful that if the site is unsafe, your employees aren’t obliged to return to work and you may be subject to disciplinary actions from the local authority or the Health and Safety Executive

When identifying ways to minimise the risks of transmission in the workplace, you have a duty to work closely with your employees.  

In order to reduce the risk of transmission, you can implement measures such as:

  • increasing the frequency of office cleaning including to surfaces, work stations, door handles, keyboards and telephones
  • reminding employees of the importance of hand washing and asking employees to increase the frequency of washing their hands
  • providing hand sanitiser at entry/exit points
  • recommending employees wear face coverings
  • implementing staggered work times to prevent overcrowding when entering and exiting the workplace
  • implementing staggered work breaks to ensure communal areas are not overcrowded
  • use screens to separate staff from each other
  • change seating arrangements so that employees are sitting back-to-back or side-to-side rather than face-to-face
  • group workers to fixed teams to reduce the number of people each individual has contact with
  • encourage employees to bring their own food and cutlery and to use their own drinking containers
  • avoid using hot desks and where impossible, clean them frequently between different users

Employees are not required to wear face coverings in offices. However, if employees choose to wear face coverings you should provide them with information on the best practices to maximise their functionality (eg washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before putting it on and after removing it). 

These measures listed are not exhaustive and you should decide what measures are reasonable for your workplace. You should take each risk on a case-by-case basis. For further information read the Government guidance on Working safely during Covid-19.

What about if staff comes into close contact with the public?

In England, it is mandatory to wear face coverings if staff is likely to come into close contact with the public. Some staff may be exempt if, because of a disability or health condition, they:

  • are prevented from wearing a face covering, or

  • would find it difficult to do so

Where a member of staff has an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering they do not:

  • routinely need to show any written evidence of this

  • need show an exemption card

This means that a staff member does not need to seek advice or request a letter from a medical professional about their reason for not wearing a face covering.

For more information, see the government’s guidance.

You should minimise the number of visits to your workplace by suggesting the use of remote working tools. Visitor arrangements should be reviewed to ensure hygiene and social distancing. It’s also important to provide your employees with the necessary training on how to host visitors and their responsibilities. 

Where visits are necessary, the site guidance on social distancing and hygiene should be clearly explained to the visitors on or before their arrival. Measures can be implemented to limit the number of visitors at one time and their interaction with others by, for example, allocating specific time slots to visitors and restricting the areas they can access.

If the visit is for carrying out essential services, you should consider if it can be scheduled at a time where there would be minimal interaction and overlap between the contractor and employees. 

While social distancing plays a significant role in protecting your workforce, there are a number of other things you should consider.

You should ensure that all your employees are aware of all Coronavirus-related safety procedures and any updates or changes to the policies must be communicated to them. It is advisable for employees to be trained before their return. 

You’re also responsible for looking after your employees’ mental health. The Government has published guidance on some activities that can help with mental health during this pandemic.

Lastly, work-related travel should be avoided whenever possible. The use of remote working tools should be considered first. If travelling is necessary, the number of employees travelling together should be kept to a minimum.

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