COVID-19 Secure guides: considerations for employers to re-opening workplaces


12th May 2020

As part of its ‘COVID-19 Recovery Strategy’, the Government has stated that workplaces are expected to follow the new ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guidelines as soon as practicable. Eight separate detailed guides have now been published for different workplace settings.

The Government is of the view that, by following these COVID-19 Secure guidelines published on 10 May 2020, this will ensure the risk of infection is as low as possible, while allowing as many people as possible to resume their livelihoods.

Eight separate detailed ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guides have now been published for the following workplace settings:

  • (1) Construction and other outdoor work;
  • (2) Factories, plants and warehouses;
  • (3) Home environments;
  • (4) Labs and research facilities;
  • (5) Offices and contact centres;
  • (6) Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery;
  • (7) Shops and branches; and
  • (8) Vehicles.

It is important to point out, however, that public health is a devolved matter and the lockdown regulations vary across the UK. Businesses need to be aware of the regulations applicable to their region. As for health and safety, employers should take account of all available guidance, which will include these guides as well as any guidance issued by the devolved governments.

Each guide sets out practical steps for businesses in those industries focusing on five key actions, which need to be implemented as soon as possible:

  1. All employers must carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment

Each guide’s first priority is a reminder to employers of the legal responsibility to protect workers from risk to their health and safety. Significantly, it is expressly stated that the guidance does not supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities and it is important that employers continue to comply with their existing obligations. While it is acknowledged that the risk of COVID-19 cannot be completely eliminated from the workplace, employers must think about the risks that workers face due to the virus and do everything reasonably practicable to minimise them.

In undertaking the risk assessment, employers have a duty to consult with workers by listening and talking to them, a trade union or representative of employees so that that the workplace risks of COVID-19 which are assessed and any measures or policies that are developed, are done so collaboratively.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has now published its own guidance Talking with your workers about preventing coronavirus which is designed to help employers consult with workers.

Importantly, in carrying out the risk assessments, each guide states that employers should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

  • All ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guides contain a notice that should be downloaded, completed and displayed in the workplace to show that the guidance has been followed.
  • Businesses with over 50 employees are expected to publish the results of their risk assessments on their websites, and all other businesses should consider doing so.
  • Businesses with fewer than 5 workers do not have to write anything down as part of their risk assessment although as a matter of best practice, a written record is advisable. 
  1. Businesses and workplaces should still make every reasonable effort to enable working from home a first option for employees

The Government has now stated that, in relation to England, those workers who cannot work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, should go to work or speak to employers about returning to work if they can do so safely

Regarding the issue of who should return to work, the guides state that employers must treat everyone in the workplace equally and should be mindful of the particular needs of different groups of workers or individuals taking into account their particular responsibilities towards disabled workers or new or expectant mothers.

The guides set out considerations employers should have in mind when assessing the risk and determining which employees should return to the workplace. These include:

  • Considering and identifying which workers are essential to be on the premises;
  • Planning for the minimum number of people needed on site to operate safely and effectively;
  • Monitoring the well-being of people who remain working from home;
  • Keeping in touch with off-site workers on their working arrangements including their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security;
  • Providing equipment for people to work from home safely;
  • The need to identify and protect people who are at higher risk;
  • Ensuring that individuals who need to self-isolate in accordance with existing Government guidance still do so and do not return to work; and
  • To keep equality in the workplace in mind. In particular, this means employers should consider making reasonable adjustments, for example to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage and assessing the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers.
  1. To maintain 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible

Each guide stresses that, if employees cannot work from home, efforts should be made to re-design workspaces and working patterns to maintain a 2 metres distances between people.

This applies to all parts of a business, so employers should also think about how social distancing can be achieved in places such as break rooms, entrances and exits and other common areas.

  1. Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, employers must manage transmission risk

Employers must consider what activities are essential in order to keep the business running. If any of the essential activities mean that social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, employers take ‘all mitigating actions possible’ to reduce the risk of transmission.

Each of the ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guides provide helpful industry-specific, practical ideas for employers how to maintain social distancing or mitigate transmission risk when employees are:

  • Coming to and leaving work;
  • Moving around buildings and worksites;
  • Holding meetings;
  • In common areas;
  • Dealing with accidents and emergencies;
  • Managing any customers, visitors and contractors; and
  • In relation to workplaces and workstations generally. 
  1. Reinforcing the cleaning processes

If a workplace has not reopened yet or has been partially closed, employers should ensure that it is ready to restart by conducting an assessment of the site, of all cleaning procedures and ensuring that hand sanitiser is provided.

Steps must be taken to keeping workplaces clean more frequently and employers should actively assist employees with maintaining good hygiene throughout the time that they are at work by for example, providing signs and reminders.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) only to be provided when the risk of transmission is ‘very high’

All guides outline that workplaces should not encourage the use of PPE outside clinical settings or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. However, if a risk assessment concludes that the risk of transmission is ‘very high’, then employers must provide PPE free of charge to employees and that this must fit properly.

Conclusion

It is essential that all employees who return to work understand the COVID-19 related safety procedures. The guides include a helpful section on managing the workforce covering issues such as communications and training. Providing clear, consistent and regular communications will improve understanding about the changes in working arrangements.

The guidance applies to businesses that are currently open. This also includes guidance for shops which the Government believes may be in a position to begin a phased reopening in England at the earliest from 1 June.

The Government has confirmed that guidance for other sectors which are not currently open will be developed and published ahead of those establishments opening to give those businesses time to plan.

It is reported that the Government has allocated £14 million to the HSE for extra call centre employees and inspectors and to enable it to carry out spot checks on employers to ensure compliance with the guidance.

Accordingly, we advise that you keep updated with Government COVID-19 Secure guidance and advice relating to your industry area, HSE, WHO and supporting organisations for up-to-date guidance.

All published ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guides can be found on the Government website here. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact our employment team.

This article has been co-written by Oliver Weiss and Jess Etherington.

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