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As the UK begins to emerge from lockdown, there remains uncertainty about when we will be back to “normal” life and what the “new normal” could look like. Government commentary suggests that social distancing may have to continue for the rest of the year, which raises questions on how some industries will return to work. Businesses must proactively identify what practical steps can be implemented in their unique working environment to allow a return to work when possible.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all in these circumstances, however it is the responsibility of every employer to fulfil their legal obligations to ensure they protect the health and safety of their employees when they return to work. All employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA) to protect, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and those affected by their undertaking. In relation to risks posed by COVID-19, this principally includes implementing social distancing and avoiding person to person contact, wherever possible.

To demonstrate working practices are objectively reasonable and evidence compliance with health and safety guidelines, a carefully considered and specific COVID-19 risk assessment will be key. This should identify essential vs non-essential activities and appropriate risk mitigation measures – activities identified as non-essential or high-risk, should be avoided when possible.

Risk assessments: a practical guide
For many, the concept of undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the risks arising from COVID-19 will seem overwhelming, however it doesn’t need to be complicated. All businesses should be used to producing risk assessments and a COVID-19 risk assessment is no different.

Set out below are key things every business should think about during this process.

Key principles
Identify where person to person contact is likely to occur and minimise/eliminate that contact, where possible.

Think about whether you can:

Record your risk assessment in writing and keep it simple, clear and concise.

Where to start
Take a logical approach – how and where do employees/customers arrive at the premises? Now, follow their journey around the site to identify possible points of contact. For example:

Doors and lifts

  • Can you have one entrance and one exit? Will this also be used by customers?
  • Are stairs an available alternative to lifts so that you can limit lift use?

Employee floors and warehouse space etc.

  • How many employees can safely be in the premises at any one time? Do they require PPE? Do you need to control the direction of movement?
  • Can you provide employees with their own workstations/equipment? How will you manage shared equipment e.g. photocopiers?
  • Do you need any additional facilities e.g. hand washing stations?
  • Use signage, demarcate two metre intervals, encourage good hand hygiene and remind employees of any key principles you want them to follow.

Staff kitchen and canteen areas

  • How will you provide access to refreshments? How will you manage shared facilities?
  • Can you stagger break/lunch times?
  • Can employees go outside on their breaks? Consider smoking shelters and how to avoid people congregating.

What else to think about
You should specifically identify all tasks that involve employees working in close proximity to one another. These tasks should be reviewed to establish if they are essential and if they can be done differently. Where tasks are essential and social distancing cannot be maintained, employees should work side-by-side or back-to-back, rather than face-to-face, and limit any face to face contact to 15 minutes.

Other practical things you should consider

  • Do you have the appropriate equipment/facilities/PPE? If not, how will you source it?
  • Do you have contract cleaners? Do you need to increase the frequency of cleaning, particularly in high-risk areas?
  • How will you communicate with your customers and employees? Do you have up to date emergency contact details for all employees and do they know how to contact you outside of work hours?
  • How will employees raise any concerns about the work environment? What about vulnerable employees?

What next?
Once a risk assessment has been completed and control measures identified to minimise or eliminate person to person contact, it is critical that these are implemented before the workplace reopens and are communicated to all ahead of arrival.

Reiterate the new measures frequently – via posters/leaflets and announcements if appropriate – and take steps to ensure compliance.

Periodically review and audit the risk assessment and control measures to ensure they are fit for purpose, being followed and are working effectively. Encourage employees to provide feedback and commentary as part of the process to ensure they feel safe at work and that the measures are practical.

Getting employees back into the workplace as soon as possible will be critical for both the economy and individual businesses. To ensure employers discharge their legal obligations, a return to work must be safe and eliminate or minimise person to person contact, wherever possible. A comprehensive risk assessment will help businesses identify their key risk areas and suitable control measures to allow a safe return to work. Keeping this simple will help businesses implement new ways of working that are reasonable, practical and easily communicated – as well as easily understood by employees and customers – ensuring everyone is as safe as possible in these uncertain times. 

Claire Burrows, Director of Regulatory & Compliance at Walker Morris LLP

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