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COVID-19: Return to the workplace - updated guidance for employers

  • Market Insight 20 July 2021 20 July 2021
  • UK & Europe

  • Coronavirus

The Government has updated its guidance “Working safely during coronavirus”, with six guides for different workplaces, which applies in England from 19 July 2021.

COVID-19: Return to the workplace - updated guidance for employers

Returning to work

On 12 July the Government published its guidance which applies from 19 July 2021, when England moves to step 4 of the roadmap: Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread. From this date, the Government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, but expects and recommends a gradual return to the workplace over the summer. In Scotland, a gradual return to the office is expected from 9 August 2021 and in Wales people should continue to work from home if they can.

The updated Working safely during coronavirus guidance which applies from 19 July 2021 covers six new sector-specific workplace guides. Employers must continue to follow statutory health and safety requirements, conduct a risk assessment and take reasonable steps to manage risks in their workplace. In addition, employers should discuss the return to the workplace, including the timing and phasing of the return, with workers, and trade unions if applicable, to ensure working arrangements meet both business and individual needs.

The guidance sets out six “priority actions” to protect staff and customers at the workplace during coronavirus:

1. Complete a health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk from COVID-19

2. Provide adequate ventilation

3. Clean more often

4. Turn away people with COVID-19 symptoms or those who are required to self-isolate

5. Enable people to check in at your venue

6. Communicate and train – ensure you keep all staff and visitors up-to-date on how you’re using and updating safety measures.

There are nine key themes that may apply to the different types of workplaces. If these are relevant to the workplace, employers should implement them as soon as is practical:

  1. Risk assessments/ Thinking about risk

Employers have a legal duty to take reasonably practical steps to manage risks in the workplace. All employers need to carry out a risk assessment which includes the risk of COVID-19. The risk assessment should involve considering the different ways the virus can spread and putting measures in place to reduce the risks in the workplace to the lowest reasonably practicable level.

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 how you will manage the risks from COVID-19.

Employers should share their risk assessment results with their workforce, and if possible, should publish these on their website. All businesses with over 50 employees are expected to do so. 

  1. Who should go to work

Extra consideration should be given to individuals who are at higher risk of infection and/or of severe illness from COVID-19, as well as those facing mental and physical health difficulties.

Although those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are no longer advised to shield, employers should support these workers by discussing their individual needs and supporting them in taking any additional precautions set out in the guidance for people who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and as advised by their clinicians.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or are contacted by NHS Test and Trace must not come into the workplace and employers must enable them to work from home while self-isolating if appropriate.

As to 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. With disabled workers, employers will need to discuss what reasonable adjustments can be made to the workplace so they can work safely. 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
  1. Ventilation

The guidance says the priority for the risk assessment is to identify occupied areas that are poorly ventilated – and that employers should prioritise these areas for reducing the risk of aerosol transmission. It also says that using a carbon dioxide (CO2) monitor can help identify poorly ventilated areas.

In poorly ventilated areas where ventilation can’t be improved, employers should consider restricting occupancy levels and the time spent in these areas.

The guidance refers to HSE advice on ventilation  and the use of CO2 monitors.

  1. Reducing contact for workers

As social distancing guidance will no longer apply, this does not need to be implemented in the workplace, and workers do not need to keep apart from people they don’t live with. In view of this, employers can mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spreading by reducing the number of people workers come into contact with when they are in their workplace and at their workstation. If possible, workstations should be assigned to an individual – or if they need to be shared, they should be cleaned between each user.

  1. Reducing risk for customers, visitors and contractors

Ensure measures are taken to protect individuals attending the workplace, and provide them with clear guidance so that they understand what they need to do to maintain safety and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

  1. Cleaning the workplace

Workplaces should be cleaned frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Cleaning procedures should be put in place for shared equipment, goods entering the workplace and vehicles at the worksite.

Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers in multiple accessible locations, including at entry and exit points, and workers should wash their hands frequently.

  1. Face coverings and PPE

Although face coverings are no longer required by law, employers should consider encouraging the use of face masks, particularly in indoor areas where workers may come into contact with people they do not normally meet, such as in communal areas and when moving around the workplace – especially in enclosed and crowded spaces.

When considering whether to require workers and customers to wear face coverings, employers should take account of reasonable adjustments required for individuals with disabilities.

  1. Workforce management

Employers must ensure they communicate with workers clearly and consistently and on an ongoing basis as to how they are implementing and updating safety measures to ensure they understand COVID-19 related safety procedures.

By the end of July 2021, the government will publish an updated COVID-19 outbreak management framework for local areas.

Other guidance says the government is encouraging and supporting businesses and large events to use the NHS COVID Pass in high risk settings.

  1. Tests and vaccinations

It is important for employers to continue to put measures in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission even if all workers have had a recent negative COVID-19 test, have had the vaccine or have natural immunity (based on proof of a positive PCR test in the past 180 days).

There is no requirement in this guidance for employers to provide regular COVID-19 testing.

What this means for employers

This updated guidance provides advice on risk assessments and measures employers can take to manage the risk of COVID-19 in their workplace and to support their staff and customers. We have just touched on some of the issues covered – employers will need to consider the relevant guides in full.

It seems likely that, given the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases in England, many employers may decide to retain the measures they currently have in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading in the workplace.

Given that the Government has recommended a gradual return to the workplace, employers will need to decide how to manage this. They may for example consider allowing staff to come into work for just one or two days a week - or instead of requiring staff to return to work, they may make returning to work voluntary. If however employers do require staff to return to the workplace, they will need to take particular care in relation to workers who are clinically extremely vulnerable and those who are pregnant.

Many workers are likely to feel anxious about returning to the workplace. So engaging with staff and communicating with them regularly is vital - and employers should be aware of mental health issues, and consider providing support for workers around mental health and wellbeing.

In September 2021, the Government will undertake a review of the country's preparedness for autumn and winter, which will consider whether to continue or strengthen the guidance for individuals and businesses.


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