Workers in masks

Following criticism that it issued a return-to-work message without any accompanying safety advice, the government has now produced guidance for a range of industries, warning businesses that safety inspections will be ramped up.

On Sunday (10 May), prime minister Boris Johnson said that those who could not work from home should be ‘actively encouraged to go to work’ in England.

The PM singled out people in construction and manufacturing as those who could not work from home, who should return to building sites and factories.

The ‘Covid-secure’ guidance, published on Monday evening (11 May), comprises eight sets of guidelines for businesses which are either currently open or are anticipated to be opened this week – namely construction and outdoor work, factories, plants and warehouses, homes, labs and research facilities, offices and contact centres, restaurants offering takeaway or delivery, shops and branches and those working with vehicles.

KEY CHANGES

While difficult to prove the actual source for an infected person, it is reasonably foreseeable that employees could catch COVID-19 at work. Although not a specific legal requirement, the government has now stated that employers, as part of their general duty, ‘need to carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment, just as you would for any other health and safety hazards’ that employees or others are exposed to. Risk assessments will be more robust and subsequent control performance more effective if employees are consulted with as part of the process, it says.

Businesses with more than five employees should record the assessment and its outcomes, as per regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The government’s guidance contains an ‘expectation’ that employers with more than 50 people will publish their risk assessment on their websites, and smaller organisations should do this too if possible.

Businesses should consider redesigning workspaces to maintain social distancing, perhaps by staggered start times, one-way walkthroughs and more entrances and exits to avoid unnecessary contact.

Where the two-metre rule cannot be followed, the new guidance says employers ‘should look into putting barriers in shared spaces, creating workplace shift patterns or fixed teams minimising the number of people in contact with one another, or ensuring colleagues are at least facing away from each other’.

Firms are also being told to make sure workplaces are cleaned more frequently, with a particular focus on high-contact objects including door handles, keyboards and communal equipment controls in a bid to cut the risk of infection.

A downloadable notice has also been produced for businesses to display in order to inform people they have followed the guidance.

INSPECTION WARNING

In the government’s daily briefing on Sunday, Johnson said businesses reopening under current lockdown restrictions will be subject to inspections to check they are keeping workers safe.

‘Workplaces must be “Covid-secure” and employers will not be allowed to get away with forcing staff to work in unsafe conditions,’ he warned. Responses will be tested through the application of reasonable practicability.

In addition, the government has made available up to £14m for the HSE for extra call centre employees, inspectors and equipment during the easing of the lockdown.

Commenting on the guidance, the HSE’s chief executive, Sarah Albon said: ’The BEIS guidance issued sets out practical steps employers can take to enable staff to continue and return to work.

‘We have worked with [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] to ensure businesses have access to guidance on control measures to help them work safely. This will assist employers in carrying out risk assessments and putting practical measures in place.

‘At the heart of the return to work is controlling the risk posed by the virus. Ensuring safe working practices are in place will help deliver a safe return to work and support businesses across the country.’