The slight easing of the lockdown measures this week sees many employees and employers facing the worrying prospect of either returning to the workplace or opening up a workplace to employees with a live invisible virus still a risk to many of us.
Health and safety at work is a joint employer and employee responsibility and employers always have a legal duty of care to their employees, but in the current situation the emphasis is being placed firmly on employers to put everything they can in place to reassure and protect employees as much as is practicable/possible by providing a safe working environment in the context of Covid-19 and considering alternatives if that can’t be done. An interesting concept given that without a vaccine and a countywide vaccination programme, employers cannot completely eliminate the risk of catching Covid-19.
Employers are also required to be mindful of mental wellbeing and that employees may be anxious and may feel uncomfortable about returning, or may be returning having suffered a bereavement of a loved one or had a close call, nursed someone in their household, been very poorly themselves or they may still be shielding themselves or others.
To help cut through some of the guidance and lighten the load a little here is our suggested ‘10 Step Return to Work Plan’. Please consider however, given your legal responsibilities as an employer, if you feel you really can’t put the relevant measures in place, then the best course of action would be to maintain and continue with your current contingency working arrangements.
This 10 step guidance is focused on the category of ‘Offices and Contact Centres’, there are other specific guides for warehousing and organisations serving food or selling products. The link to the full guide and the range of service specific guidance can be found here. The link to the government guidance specifically for Offices and Contact Centres can be found here.
Step 1 – Carry Out a Risk Assessment
All employers will be required to carry out a risk assessment related to working safely during Covid-19. For employers with less than 5 employees or those self-employed this does not have to be written down (although we would suggest it is). For employers with more than 5 employees it should be written down.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have prepared a Risk Assessment Template here. The HSE have also prepared some sample completed risk assessments for the different sectors to give you an idea of how they should be completed, follow the same link above. The link for the ‘Office Based Sample’ is here.
The risk assessment will help you, where possible to address any areas of risk to limit/mitigate the risk – where this is not possible you will need to decide whether that activity simply cannot be carried out at all, or whether it could be done differently/from home, or if it is an essential activity what other precautions can you take to protect your workforce.
Step 2 – Sharing your Risk Assessment with the Workforce
You are required to share the completed risk assessment with your workforce.
Employers have a duty to consult their people on health and safety. You can do this by listening and talking to them about the work and how you will manage risks from COVID-19. The people who do the work are often the best people to understand the risks in the workplace and will have a view on how to work safely. Involving them in making decisions shows that you take their health and safety seriously. If you have one, you must consult with the health and safety representative/committee selected by a recognised trade union or, if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by workers. This may be difficult to organise in lockdown, but we would suggest nominating one or two people (in a small business) or in larger businesses appointing a team spokesperson to liaise between their teams and business leaders.
You may find your employees have helpful ideas and suggestions that could feed into revising and finalising the risk assessment.
Step 3 – Publishing your Risk Assessment
If you have more than 50 employees you are encouraged to publish your completed risk assessment on your Company Website.
Step 4 – Infection Control Policy
You could add a specific Infection Control Policy to your handbook or policy suite for the foreseeable future.
Step 5 – Update Your Privacy Statement
In order to plan and put appropriate measures in place to enable a safe return to work, it would be helpful to ask employees some questions around whether they have had Covid-19, or whether anyone in their household has had it (confirmed or suspected) or whether your employee is shielding themselves or anyone at home. We would not normally need to ask these types of questions and this is additional personal sensitive data we will be collecting. So we would suggest you carry out a Data Impact Assessment and update your privacy notice by sending out a supplementary notice in relation to Covid-19 and the data you may like to collect.
Step 6 – Return to Work Questionnaire
To help you understand the status of your workforce and plan accordingly, you could ask employees to complete a ‘Return to Work Questionnaire’ which includes some specific questions for employees to establish who has had the virus or suspected symptoms within their household, and whether employees are shielding themselves or anyone else. You can ask your employees to complete this prior to a return to work to help you plan ahead and consider risks. It is also an opportunity to ask employees to update their emergency contact details. Use of this or a similar questionnaire will help you to have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Step 7 – Signage and Posters
With risk assessments complete and all measures in place you should display the government poster (a bit like the H&S one all workplaces must display) to say you are a ‘Covid-19 Safe Work Environment’ which you can download here. There are other signs you can display in the workplace such as the ‘Employers and Business Guidance’ Posters, and ‘Catch it, kill it, bin it’.
Step 8 – Workplace Measures
If you use the links I have provided you can read the guidance in relation to the actions and measures you might need to take for your specific businesses in the context of Covid-19, and I am not going to re-write the guidance here for you as different things will apply to different businesses, but in summary the keys points are:
No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment, and a dismissal on the grounds of an employee refusing to attend work because they feel unsafe, would be potentially unsound/unfair.
The Government’s guide to ‘Social Distancing in the Workplace’ can be viewed here.
The Government’s guide to ‘Cleaning in the Workplace’ can be viewed here.
The Government’s guide to ‘The Use of PPE in the Workplace’ can be viewed here.
Step 9 – Communication and Training
Keeping two-way lines of communication open with your employees is critical during this ongoing situation. You need to keep employees informed about measures you are taking to protect them and things you need them to do to keep everyone as safe as possible as this is a joint responsibility. You can also tap into their knowledge and expertise to help you manage the situation as best you can.
Before or on return to the workplace everyone will need to be provided with training and guidance on the new measures and safe working practices in place, and they will need to be committed to following any such measures or guidance. Non-compliance will need to be treated as a serious matter. You may need to give returning employees some space and time to settle back in and familiarise themselves with more new ways of working.
Step 10 – Continuous Review
Your risk assessment should be a live working document and along with the measures and new processes you put in place this will all need to be regularly reviewed and amended as restrictions lift further or newer guidance is published, or a vaccination/antibody testing programme comes online. Again, sharing any changes with the workforce and asking for their thoughts/suggestions.
We hope you have found these 10 Steps helpful. Get in touch if we can help with your return to work planning