COVID-19: How to safely get back to work

14 May 2020

The Government has set out a road map showing the steps that can be gradually taken to eventually lift the lockdown and enable businesses, in all sectors, to open their doors once more.  At present, the message remains that people should continue to work from home where they can. However, for a lot of businesses this is not reasonably possible and in these cases, people are being encouraged to return to work provided that it is as safe as reasonably possible for them to do so.

In every workplace, employers have a duty to consult their employees on health and safety and to consult with a trade union or a representative chosen by the workers. The latest guidance from the Government makes clear that health and safety in the workplace is of the upmost priority and where the enforcing authority, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or local authority identifies employers that fail to take appropriate action in response to COVID-19, they will consider taking the relevant action.

This 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 existing workplace regulations and duties owed to employees. Consideration also needs to be given to agency workers, contractors, and other people, as well as employees, when applying this guidance.

Construction and outdoor working

The guidance for construction and other outdoor workers makes clear that every employer is required to carry out a risk assessment addressing the risks of coronavirus in the workplace and the steps that need to be taken to reduce these risks to the lowest reasonably possible. These steps include more frequent and enhanced cleaning, especially in high contact areas, and encouraging employees to regularly wash their hands. In addition, social distancing guidelines need to be followed, as much as possible, which means that employees should not come within two metres of each other unless this is not reasonably possible.

In the event that social distancing is not possible due to the nature of the work being undertaken, careful consideration should be given to whether it is essential for the work to be carried out or whether it can be carried out by alternative means. In the event that employees need to work within a two metre distance from each other, this should be kept to a minimum with back-to-back or side-to-side working – insofar as possible - rather than face-to-face working.

It is recommended that employees work staggered shifts and/or there are fixed groups of workers on site to ensure that any unavoidable contact is between the same, small group of people. In addition, consideration should be given to minimising congregation at site access points and identifying and avoiding the need for direct contact areas, for example, by using drop-off points or transfer zones. 

Consideration can be given to providing or encouraging employees to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves or facemasks in order to deal solely with the risk of coronavirus. However, it is important to note that guidance from the government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) does not make it compulsory for employees to provide PPE purely in response to COVID-19.

Factories, plants and warehouses

The guidance in respect of factories, plants and warehouses sets out recommendations for safe working and provides a number of practical considerations. The applicable businesses under this section include industrial environments, such as manufacturing and chemical plants, food and other large processing businesses, warehouses, distribution centres and port operations.

The aim is to minimise the risk of contracting coronavirus to the lowest level reasonably possible by increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning, making every reasonable effort to enable working from home, and taking mitigating steps where it is not possible to comply with social distancing guidelines. If social distancing cannot be followed, it should be considered whether that activity is crucial to the operation of the business, and if so, all mitigating actions must be taken to reduce the risk of transmission between staff. Further mitigating actions include reducing the activity time involved on tasks, using screens/barriers to separate people, using back-to-back or side-to-side working, where possible, and reducing the amount of contact with other people.

Businesses need to identify areas where people have to directly pass things to each other, (spare parts, samples, materials etc.), and find ways to remove direct contact, such as through the use of drop-off points and transfer zones. It is also suggested that there are procedures to minimise person-to-person contact, reviews of layouts and consideration of line set-ups to allow people to work further apart from each other. In addition, consideration should be given to using floor markings to help workers keep a two metre distance from each other and a two person pairing system where social distancing cannot possibly be followed.

Labs and research facilities

Labs and research facilities refers to any indoor engineering centres, wet labs, wind tunnels, specialist testing rooms etc. All of these places require on-site collaboration between people, often in close proximity and machinery and apparatus is used, not all of which can be washed down. They have the potential to be a hub for the spread of COVID-19 however their work is essential.

The Government asks for all employers to use their common sense in adopting measures that are sensible for their specific work place; taking into consideration the number of employees and size of the environment by conducting a risk assessment. This risk assessment then needs to be shared with the workforce.

As in every workplace, labs and research facilities must ensure that the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning is increased and that social distancing of two metres, where physically possible, is followed. In cases where social distancing cannot be followed due to the nature of the activity being undertaken, employers should take all mitigating actions possible, such as using screens and barriers, encouraging back-to-back or side-to-side working rather than face-to-face and keeping the activity time involved as short as possible.

Employers should also stagger arrival, departure and break times to reduce crowding in the workplace and designate exclusive entry and exits points for personnel working in high risk areas, such as mechanical test sites and wet labs. Employees should also be requested, where possible, to change into their lab wear on-site and to wash their clothing and equipment on-site and not take items home. Furthermore, the use of high-touch items and shared test equipment should be limited and all steps should be taken to ensure there is effective ventilation.

In relation to emergencies such as a chemical spillage, fire or break in, the Government notes that workers would not need to stay two metres apart where this would be unsafe.

Working in other people’s homes

Working in other people’s homes includes (but is not limited to) plumbing work, electrical work, meter reading, home deliveries, home cleaning and home assistance.

The first step is for employers to assess the risk and to consider whether the home visit or work is essential, or whether it can be carried out without someone being required to attend. These should also be compliance with existing obligations and an employer should address the additional hazards associated with COVID-19 and identify sensible measures to control the risks of exposure to the virus in the workplace.

Guidance from the Government provides that the householder should be contacted before any visit to ensure that all necessary arrangements are in place for it to be carried out safely.  It is recommended that people travel, where possible, alone and in their own vehicle or for there to be fixed teams or partnering with workers matched to households. In addition, people should be traveling in well ventilated vehicles if more than one person is needed and to be prepared and have the required equipment, to avoid additional visits.

When working in someone else’s house, social distancing should be maintained and employees should be encouraged to wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitiser, if hand washing is impractical. It is recommended that internal doors are left open to avoid contact with doorknobs and for visits to be kept to the minimum amount of time possible. Tools and equipment should not be shared and should, where possible, be wiped down after each use, taken away and/or disposed of. 

In addition, screens and barriers can be used and employees, where possible, should work back-to-back or side-by-side, which avoids face-to-face working. Specialised guidance should also be followed for those who are clinically vulnerable or at higher risk.

Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery services

Many restaurants and bars are now offering takeaway or delivery services in order to continue operating during the current lockdown. Government guidance provides that these businesses must carry out suitable risk assessments in respect of staff exposure to coronavirus in the workplace. Consideration needs to be given to the fact that staff may come into contact with customers if they enter the premises to collect their takeaway or if they make contact with the delivery driver when there takeaway is being delivered.

Business operating in this sector must take the required steps to reduce staff exposure to the virus, which include increasing the frequency of handwashing and the cleaning of worktops, counters, floors, door handles etc,. Social distancing guidelines must also be followed, whenever reasonably possible, which means that people should be kept two metres apart from each other.

In addition, other mitigating steps include using screens and barriers to separate people, using back-to-back or side-to-side working rather than face-to-face (whenever possible) and reducing the number of people each member of staff could come into contact with by having fixed teams or partnering in the workplace.

Guidance from the Government makes clear that employers have a duty to consult their staff on health and safety and must listen and talk to them because they are often best placed to understand the risks in the workplace and to offer their own constructive input. In addition, employers must consult with the health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union, or if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by workers.

In all cases, it is essential that there are safe systems of work in order to combat the risk of coronavirus in the workplace. Staff should also be encouraged to report any concerns to their manager or a senior member of staff and to speak out if they are uncomfortable with the systems that are in place.

Shops and branches

This guidance covers all types of shops and banking branches, even if not yet currently open. The Government requires that a risk assessment specific to COVID-19 is carried out to reduce the risk to the lowest level reasonably possible, and that this is shared with all employees on completion. This risk assessment must assess all factors to include personal hygiene, cleaning of the workplace and customer contact.

Mitigating actions such as reducing the numbers of people that employees are coming into contact with and implementing screens or barriers are recommended. Additional steps are required for those classed as vulnerable and employers are required to consider whether they can be allocated to a non-public facing role or are able to work from home. 

The guidance suggests that, where possible, people should be kept two metres apart from each other and if fitting rooms are necessary, only limited number of people should enter with the implementation of one way systems. The guidance also recommends, where possible, that new ways are put in place for browsing which reduce the number of customers handling products. In addition, it is recommended that there are  time slots for collections to reduce busy periods and to ensure contactless payments are used.

For local bank branches, meetings with customers must, where possible, be by telephone or in well ventilated rooms with social distancing measures in place. Shops and branches must implement as many of these steps as possible to reduce the risk of customer and staff exposure to coronavirus, as far as is reasonably practicable.

Working in or from vehicles

The Government has now provided advice for employees who work in or from vehicles, including couriers, mobile workers, lorry drivers and on site transit workers. Whilst many of these roles have continued to operate in one form or another during the lockdown the guidance is an opportunity to review the systems in place.

The main Government guidance for reducing the risk of COVID-19 can be summarised by social distancing, hygiene and fixed teams or partnering. Wearing a face covering is optional which means that an employee is not required to provide them to their employees.

Social distancing for sole couriers or drivers is not an issue in itself but employers need to be aware of circumstances where larger items are being delivered, which due to their size or weight may be unsafe for a sole courier or driver to handle. In these circumstances, either two couriers should be partnered together, sitting side-by-side in well ventilated vehicles or where an employee is working on their own, mechanical assistance should be provided. Social distancing should also be observed at the points of pick-up and delivery, which can be assisted by staggered start times in warehouses and contactless pick-ups and deliveries.

Employees should be encouraged to wash their hands before boarding vehicles and frequent cleaning of work areas and equipment should take place. It is recommended that hand sanitiser and wipes are retained, where possible, to be used on objects frequently touched such as door handles. In addition, vehicles should be used by the same person or partners –insofar as possible – and personal belongings should be removed at the end of the day from the vehicles. A thorough clean down of each vehicle should also be conducted at the end of the working day.

Offices and contact centres

The Government has provided useful examples on how and, in what circumstances people may be able to return to office and contact centre roles, which do not lend themselves to home working.

Staggered shift patterns, extended office hours and/or staggered break times are encouraged in order to reduce pressure on communal areas. Where possible, outside break areas are preferable and employees are encouraged to bring their own lunch, to reduce the need for a canteen. Fixed teams or “partnering” should be considered, so that each person works with only a few people, on a regular basis.

Where possible, there should be additional handwashing stations or hand sanitisers gels that are made available throughout the office. There should be a particular focus on busy areas such as entrances and exits, kitchens, breakout rooms, meeting rooms and other communal areas. Guidance on good handwashing techniques and the provision of paper towels over hand-dryers is also recommended. In addition, where there is a multi-tenant office block, collaboration between tenants will be important to ensure compliance with government guidance throughout the building.

Seating arrangements should be reconfigured to separate workstations to two metres apart. Screens and barriers or moving desks should be installed to enable employees sit back-to-back or side-to-side if the desks cannot be separated by two metres. Hot desking should be avoided wherever possible, or thorough cleaning after each occupant undertaken.

Additional entrance/exit points to the building and, subject to space/size, a “one way” system of entry/exit could be introduced to reduce congestion. Tape/floor markings could be installed to mark out 2 metre gaps and direction of travel, should a one way system be achievable. Careful consideration for the amount of individuals using a lift, for example, must be given and employers may consider limiting lift capacity to 2 individuals (or 1 wheelchair user).

Offices can expect that enhanced cleaning will need to be undertaken, to include busy areas and high touch items e.g. door handles and work stations. Good ventilation is actively encouraged and offices should consider leaving windows/doors open wherever practicable, if it is safe to do so.

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Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to clients of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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