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COVID-19: New workplace guidance for employers launched – working safely during coronavirus

  • Legal Development 12 May 2020 12 May 2020
  • UK & Europe

  • Employment, Pensions & Immigration

New ‘COVID-19 secure’ guidelines have been launched for employers covering the steps employers need to take to get their workplaces operating as safely as possible.

COVID-19: New workplace guidance for employers launched – working safely during coronavirus

The new guidance covers 8 types of workplace which are allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites to factories and offices. Many businesses operate more than one type of workplace, such as an office, factory and fleet of vehicles, so they will need to use more than one of these guides.

There are 7 key themes that apply to all types of workplaces and which should be implemented as soon as it is practical:

1. People should work from home, if they can

All reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help people work from home if at all possible. But for those who cannot work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, they should go to work if their workplace is open.

It remains the case that anyone who has symptoms, however mild, or is in a household where someone has symptoms, should not leave their house to go to work. Those people should self-isolate, as should those in their households.

When planning who should go to work, employers are expected to:

  • Ensure people work from home if at all possible, and consider who is needed onsite
  • Plan for the minimum number of people needed onsite to operate safely and effectively
  • Monitor the wellbeing of people who are working from home and help them stay connected to the rest of the workforce, especially if the majority of their colleagues are onsite
  • Keep in touch with off-site workers on their working arrangements including their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security
  • Provide equipment for people to work at home safely and effectively, for example, remote access to work systems.

Special considerations are needed for clinically vulnerable and extremely vulnerable people. If clinically vulnerable (but not extremely clinically vulnerable) individuals cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available onsite roles, enabling them to stay 2 metres away from others. If they have to spend time within 2 metres of others, employers are expected to carefully assess whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.

Until workers (besides key workers) are able to send their children back to schools and nurseries, many will face ongoing barriers to returning to work, and employers will need to be understanding and flexible around this.

Discrimination and equality considerations

Employers must take into account the needs of those with protected characteristics, including, for example, expectant mothers who are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if suitable roles cannot be found and those with disabilities. Particular attention should also be paid to people who live with clinically extremely vulnerable individuals.

Key steps that need to be taken include:

  • understanding and taking into account the particular circumstances of those with protected characteristics
  • involving and communicating appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might either expose them to a different degree of risk, or might make any measures that might be implemented inappropriate or challenging for them
  • considering whether employers need to put in place any particular measures or adjustments to take account of their duties under the equalities legislation
  • making reasonable adjustments to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage, and assessing the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers
  • making sure that the steps employers take do not have an unjustifiable negative impact on some groups compared to others, for example, those with caring responsibilities or those with religious commitments

2. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions

Employers have a legal responsibility to protect workers and others from risks to their health and safety. This involves thinking about the risks they face and doing everything that is reasonably practicable to minimise them, recognising it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19. As part of this, employers need to carry out COVID-19 risk assessments to assess and manage the risks of COVID-19.

Employers should consult with workers or a worker representative (the health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union or, if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by workers) about return to work plans. Workers should be involved in assessing workplace risks and the development and review of workplace health and safety policies in partnership with the employer.

As part of this assessment employers should give particular consideration to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

If possible, employers should publish on their website the results of their risk assessments in respect of all their workplaces. All businesses with over 50 employees are expected to do so.  

3. Maintain 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible

Employers should re-design workspaces to maintain 2 metre distances between people wherever possible, such as by staggering start times, creating one way walk-throughs, opening more entrances and exits, or changing seating layouts in break rooms.

4. Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk

Employers should look into putting barriers in shared spaces, creating workplace shift patterns or fixed teams minimising the number of people in contact with one another, or ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other when they are working (e.g. working back-to-back or side-to-side).

If people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then employers will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead.

5. Only use extra PPE if there is high risk of COVID-19 transmission

The guidance is clear that workplaces (apart from hospitals etc) should not use PPE to protect against COVID-19 or when managing a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. That said, where the risk assessment shows the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very high, then employers must provide properly fitting PPE free of charge to workers who need it.

Wearing a face covering is optional and is not required by law, including in the workplace. Employers should support workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one which means telling them about hygiene steps they should take. But face coverings shouldn't be a replacement for other ways of managing risk, such as using fixed teams and partnering for close-up work.

6. Reinforce cleaning processes

Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points, and workers should wash their hands more frequently than usual.

A downloadable notice is included in the documents, which employers should display in their workplaces to show their workers, customers and other visitors to their workplace, that they have followed this guidance.

7. Communicate with and train workers on safety measures

Employers must provide training materials for workers on safety issues and communicate clearly, regularly and consistently to ensure understanding and consistency in working procedures. It's important that workers feel they are returning to a safe and supportive workplace.

There should also be awareness and focus in the workplace on the importance of mental health, and ongoing engagement with the workforce (including through trade unions or employee representative groups) to monitor and understand the impact of changes to working environments.

What this means for employers

Employers will need to consider the full workplace guidance – we have just touched on some of the issues covered by the guidance.

Employers should carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment and follow the steps set out in the relevant guidance for their workplaces, taking into account the size and type of their business.  They must do everything reasonably practicable to minimise the risks, while recognising that they can’t completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19.

As far as possible, staff should work from home. For those workers who will be onsite, employers should re-design workspaces to maintain 2 metre distances between people wherever possible. Where that cannot be achieved, employers must manage transmission risk by using screens and barriers and minimising contact with people. Workers should wash their hands more frequently than usual, with sufficient handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers, including at entry and exit points. Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently and thoroughly.

In addition to providing training on the new workplace procedures, employers must ensure that they communicate clearly and consistently on safety issues to ensure employees understand what is required and that they feel safe. Ongoing engagement with workers, showing understanding and flexibility in relation to their concerns and individual circumstances will also be key to ensure their wellbeing during these difficult times.

Of course, the principle focus of the latest guidance has been for individuals operating in the workplace. However, a more problematic issue for many people – particularly in London and some other big cities – is how they get to work if they would normally use public transport. The government's latest guidance is that people should avoid using public transport when travelling to work wherever possible – and should drive, walk or cycle instead. But if public transport cannot be avoided, social distancing rules should be followed and people should try to avoid peak travel times. This means that it will be very difficult for many people to get to work which, we anticipate, will create its own problems that employers will have to work through.

If you have any questions or would like advice on any of the issues raised here, please get in touch with your usual Clyde & Co contact.

For more Coronavirus (Covid-19) information please see our Coronavirus hub here.

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