Re-opening your Workplace with COVID in mind

Firstly, it is important that employers recognise that COVID-19 has not gone away and person-to-person contact is still the virus’s main route of transmission. Whilst the government is removing legal restrictions on 19th July, such as for the wearing of face masks, the need to socially distance or the need to work from home, these requirements were aimed at the general populace, which by definition included employers. Instead, they are now giving the populace the moral responsibility to “open up slowly, wear masks in crowded, enclosed areas and socially distance if you are with people that you do not know or if you are vulnerable in some way”.

However, employers have always had an obligation to ensure the safety of employees and any other person that can be affected by their tasks and activities, it is called the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSW Act). This Act and its supporting regulations continue to require workplaces and work activities to be managed in such a way as to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the risk of harm, which includes managing the risk, from what is still a virulent and highly infectious disease.

Furthermore, regulation imposes an absolute requirement on employers to conduct risk assessments and where five or more employees exist, to write them down and ensure those assessments are reviewed if there is a significant change to the risk of harm or to a determined time frame, whichever comes first.

The pandemic of January 2020 gave rise to such a significant change and therefore regulation required a risk assessment be carried out to manage the risk of infection and to follow this up by putting in place suitable and sufficient control measures to control the risk of infection in the workplace. This legal requirement was reinforced by the governments guidance which expressly instructed employers to carry out a “COVID-19 risk assessment”.

If your workplace is already open or partially open, this risk assessment should already (legally) be in place and may just need reviewing to demonstrate any changes. If you are opening the workplace for the first time in a long time, then it will likely need to be created. If starting from scratch it is unlikely that existing risk assessments will cover the hazards presented by Covid-19 in sufficient detail and it is recommended that you create a “Re-opening risk assessment”.

This assessment needs to identify who can be harmed by your organisation’s activities / working methods “in relation to the hazard”, which is the risk of infection by the virus, the result of which could be a minor illness at one end of the scale and possible fatality at the other, although the risk of this “ultimate” consequence is decreasing with the vaccination program proceeding at pace.

What you might find challenging is identifying effective but realistic control measures. These measures may still involve social distancing, the wearing of a mask, maintaining a high standard of hygiene (both personal and within the working environment) and working from home. The following should be included within the risk assessment:

  • How employees and contractors can safely enter premises that may have been closed for months to prepare the site for reoccupation

In terms of reoccupation, all relevant fire safety equipment and systems must be tested before employees and others are allowed back on site with any formal inspections or servicing of the fire alarm, firefighting equipment or emergency lighting that have been missed, conducted, prior to reoccupation of the site commencing.

Where water systems have been completely unused, or only partially used for an extended period of time, (measured in weeks, a month at the most), they may present an increased risk of Legionella bacteria multiplying to hazardous concentrations. This could be as simple as running the taps for 5 minutes if you do not ordinarily have legionella concerns.

  • Whether or not you decide to ‘deep’ clean your premise(s) ahead of reoccupa­tion will depend on various factors, including whether buildings have been recently accessed during the lockdown period (i.e. use of security guards); whether some staff have been on site; and the expecta­tion from employees in terms of whether the premises needs a deep clean. In many cases cleaning for general hygiene and appearance purposes will be all that is necessary.
  • How social distancing measures will be managed, especially at “pinch points” around entrances, lifts, vending machines, toilets and other common areas?
  • Whether ventilation is adequate or steps needing to be taken to improve airflow.
  • Which work activities or work situations might cause easy transmission of the virus and can the activity or situation be stopped whilst these conditions exist or how the risk will be adequately controlled.
  • Who is at risk and whether it is likely that people with specific risk could be exposed?
  • Is the provision of hand washing and welfare facilities adequate and are extended / more stringent cleaning operations (in the context of Covid-19) needed?
  • How to safely restart equipment / machinery that has been turned off or not used for a period of time?

The process may require electrical / mechanical isolations to be reconnected, fluids to be refilled and equipment to be powered up in a specific order. Therefore, you should base your actions on the manufacturers’ instructions, accepted technical guidance and make use of specialist contractors as required.

You should ensure that any lifting equipment, pressure systems, gas appliances, etc have been examined, serviced or maintained and are ‘in date’ prior to the reoccupation of buildings or use of equipment.

Whether further training is required (and how this will be delivered).

When returning plant and equipment into full use, you must ensure that employees have retained adequate knowledge to use it safely. As such, it may be necessary to provide refresher training for certain items and / or systems. This is particularly relevant to staff who only had limited experience prior to the lockdown.

You must also review the status of any planned periodic refresher training which may have been missed during the lockdown, e.g., forklift truck training.

  • You must also ensure that there is adequate supervision of those using plant and equipment, particularly if sites operate for an extended period of time and / or experienced supervisors are not available.

As a part of the risk assessment process, you will also need to give due consideration to how the findings and control measures determined as needed by the risk assessment will be able to be communicated to employees and other interested parties effectively.

You should continue to update your COVID-19 risk assessment to reflect any changes in legislation or guidance that may impact how you carry out your work activity, for example if there is a change in local or national restrictions.

If you are a high-risk site due to floor space being limited, with a significant footfall or a high number of site users who are from differing households but in close proximity to each other, follow the Governments request and reduce risk by asking site users to produce evidence of their status such as an NHS COVID Pass as a condition of entry. There is still the possibility that this use of certification may be mandated at some point but is still a control measure that should be recorded if it is used.

As employers, you are also encouraged to talk to any clinically extremely vulnerable workers (regardless of their age) returning to the workplace, so you can explain the measures being taken to ensure where they work is COVID-secure. Whilst they have not been required to “shield” since April 2021, it is still the recommendation in the GOV. UK guidance that they still take extra precautions to protect themselves whilst the virus is still spreading in the community, which includes continuing to work from home if possible.

Updated guidance on the clinically extremely vulnerable is still being waited upon at the time of this Alert’s issue.

If you need to support homeworkers or reduce “in person” face to faces that occur in the workplace some considerations to make might include:

  • Thinking about tasks that could be done in another way that mean you do not need to move around the workplace, or even go into work at all:

Conducting meetings, large or small (use of the phone, email or video conferencing),

conducting “in person” customer / worker consultations (use of phone or virtual meetings),

checking in with sites (use of phone, email or organising of virtual meetings),

talking to others about work that needs to be done (use email, phone and video conferencing).

  • Agreeing on providing the IT and other equipment they will need to work remotely,
  • think about how you will keep in touch with people working remotely, to make sure they feel part of the team and involved,
  • think about using online resources to look after their mental health and wellbeing.

Consultation with the workforce is legally required regarding safety arrangements through the HSW Act and supporting legislation. Employee consultation with regards to the COVID-19 risk assessment is no different and is also asked for by the government guidance. The consultation process is also likely to help identify control measures which are both practical and supported by the employees so is likely to be an effective way of ensuring that the risk assessment is suitable, sufficient, understood and the control measures followed.

As well as the legal requirement you as an employer have to share the findings of the risk assessments with the workforce, the government “expects” all employers with more than 50 employees to publish their COVID-19 risk assessment on their website.

The government has also asked businesses to display a COVID Secure notice in their workplace, confirming that they have carried out a COVID-19 risk assessment, have shared it with their workforce and have complied with the government’s guidance on managing the risks of COVID-19. This should be signed and dated by the duty holder.

If this alert has raised questions or you need to discuss this or any other health & safety issue, contact your health & safety consultant or the main office for assistance. We can supply on request a COVID-19 toolkit (a methodology for you to carry out an in-house review of your risks) and an example risk assessment for you to see what your own may need to look like.