The Government launched its guidance yesterday to help employers get their businesses back up and running and work places operating safely.
The new guidance covers eight workplace settings which are allowed to open and include: (i) construction and other outdoor work; (ii) factories, plants and warehouses; (iii) labs and research facilities; (iv) office and contact centres; (v) other people’s homes; (vii) restaurants offering takeaway or delivery; (vii) shops and branches; and (viii) vehicles. The guidance can be found here: www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19
Every business will need to review the guidance and put in place specific actions depending on its own set-up.
Employers should carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment to ensure that the potential risk to employees and workers are reduced as much as possible. This should be written down and regularly reviewed as additional guidance is published. You should consult with your workers on health and safety. The risk assessment should be shared with workers.
There is, at the time of writing, no risk assessment provided by the government or HSE in England, but the Northern Ireland HSE does have an example which was published on 21 April 2020 - www.hseni.gov.uk/publications/example-covid-19-risk-assessment-template. Other risk assessments are available from private companies.
The key points for employers to remember are as follows:
a. People should only go to work if they cannot work from home;
b. You must increase surface cleaning and the frequency of handwashing;
c. Where working from home is not possible, you should make every reasonable effort to keep people two meters apart wherever possible;
d. If social distancing cannot be maintained, you need to take action to reduce the risk of transmission. This includes:
1. Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other;
2. Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible;
3. Increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning;
4. Using back to back or side to side working whenever possible; and
5. Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using fixed teams so each person works with only a few others.
Two other points which are of particular note are as follows:
1. Face coverings
The government states that “additional PPE beyond what you usually wear is not beneficial” with a few exceptions. The guidance goes on to state “Workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19 outside clinical settings or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.”
The government says that a face covering may be worn in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible. Face coverings are optional and not required by law.
If your employees choose to wear one, you should support them. This means telling workers to:
a. Wash hands thoroughly before putting the face covering on, and after removing it;
b. Not touching the face covering when wearing it;
c. Changing the face covering if it becomes damp or they touch it;
d. Continue to wash hands regularly; and
e. Change and wash their face covering daily.
Wearing a face covering does not mean that people can stop practicing social distancing where it is possible to do so.
2. Staggering start times and creating working groups
The government is recommending staggering start and finish times to reduce the number of people going through exits and entrances.
It is also recommending that staff are split into teams or shift groups and fixing these teams or shift groups so that where contact is unavoidable, it happens between the same people.
This may mean changing worker’s contractual hours. You should discuss any changes with your workers as this may involve a change to their terms and conditions of employment. Your employment contracts may allow you to unilaterally amend their hours (within reason), but if not you will need to seek agreement.
Given that schools remain closed and certain employees are required to shield, it is likely that you will need to be flexible with certain employees in order to ensure that they are able to come to work. You should be aware of putting in place any requirements which may be deemed discriminatory.
The guidance is continually changing and is not always clear. These are incredibly difficult times for employers and their workers. In our experience, open communications are key and listening to people’s concerns. It may be prudent to spend time digesting the guidance and taking time to put measures in place, before bringing back your workforce. Whilst this may mean a delay in restarting operations, it will allow those operations to be more effective when they do commence.
This article is current at the date of publication set out above and is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action.