The UK government has produced "Covid-secure" guidelines for factories, plants and warehouses, which apply widely to industrial environments such as manufacturing and chemical plants, food and other large processing facilities, warehouses, distribution centres and port operations.
Although the guidelines are not legally binding at this stage, employers are encouraged to follow their recommendations to minimise the risk of enforcement action by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Businesses operating these types of facilities should consider the following key principles:
1. Covid-19 risk assessments
Notwithstanding the risk assessments already conducted by factories, plants and warehouses concerning their particular work activities, a Covid-19 risk assessment needs to be undertaken and should be completed before warehouses/plants reopen.
For warehouses/plants that are already open in some capacity, as many in the food industry have been throughout the lockdown, these assessments should be conducted without further delay.
The employer must make sure the risk assessment addresses the risks of Covid-19 and that suitable control measures are implemented to reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level.
The employer should consult workers and a health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union, or a representative chosen by workers, although there is no further guidance on what to do if risk assessments cannot be agreed.
The factories guidelines make clear that the HSE will seek to take enforcement action against operators of factories, plants or warehouses who do not have robust risk assessments in place.
Once the risk assessment has been prepared and agreed, the guidelines stipulate that employers must share the results of the assessment with their workforce and are encouraged to publish the results on the company's website.
This becomes an expectation if the business employs more than 50 workers.
2. Working from home and knowing your work-force
Government guidance remains that people should work from home, where they can. Therefore, some employees in factories, plants and warehouses, such as office staff, should continue to work from home if possible and employers should make every reasonable effort to adopt working from home practices for staff that can practically do so (for further advice on safeguarding the health and safety of remote workers, please see our previous guidance).
However, the majority of factory and plant workers will not be able to work from home, and in these instances, every effort should be made to comply with social distancing guidelines (see below) when staff return to the workplace.
Employers should identify clinically vulnerable individuals (CVIs) and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (CEVIs). CEVIs have been advised not to work outside the home and employers should abide by this.
CVIs are at higher risk of severe illness and if CVIs cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on site-roles, enabling them to stay two metres away from others.
If they have to spend time within two metres of others, careful assessment is needed as to whether this involves an acceptable level of risk, although it is unclear what this means in practice and in reality will be a subjective assessment.
3. Social distancing
Most factories, plants and warehouses will require large numbers of people to undertake activities on site for workplaces to operate.
The default position is that any on-site activity must be undertaken at a social distance (i.e., two metres away from other people).
Where social distancing cannot be followed for a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and if so, take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff.
Mitigating factors may include:
- Planning for the minimum number of people needed on site to operate safely and effectively;
- Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible;
- Staggering arrival, departure and break times to reduce crowding into, out or around common areas;
- Introducing one-way flow through buildings and providing floor markings and signage to workers to remind them to remain socially distant;
- Reviewing workplace layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart;
- Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other;
- Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) if barriers/distancing measures are not possible;
- Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using fixed teams or partnering to prevent transmission among large groups of people;
- Limiting passengers in corporate vehicles or vehicles used for onsite travel and leaving seats empty to facilitate social distancing;
- Reducing maximum occupancy for lifts, providing hand sanitiser for the operation of lifts and encouraging the use of stairs;
- Using remote working tools to avoid in person meetings and, if contact meetings are required, maintaining social distance;
- Limiting the number of visitors at any one time and ensuring social distancing and hygiene;
- Providing packaged meals or similar to avoid opening staff canteens and reconfiguring seating/tables to maintain spacing;
- Minimising unnecessary contact at security;
- Providing training, guidance and signage on Covid-19-related safety measures.
Before factories, plants and warehouses reopen, employers should ensure sites are clean and ready to restart. This should be incorporated into the Covid-19 risk assessment.
Factory, plant and warehouse-based businesses should assess whether the workplace is sufficiently ventilated and, if they have concerns, will need to think about improving ventilation and airflow into the workplace and potentially seek advice from their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) engineers or advisers.
All areas of the factory, plant or warehouse should be regularly cleaned using usual cleaning products. Particular focus should be paid to regularly touched surfaces, such as door handles, pump handles and printers.
There should be increased handwashing and hand sanitisation facilities made available to all occupants and signage about increased hygiene.
Once a business has undertaken all of the above measures, they can download and display a notice to say that they have complied with the government's guidance.
It is not yet known whether the HSE will use these notices as a precursor for investigations/inquiries into health and safety standards in a workplace, but the focus is likely to be initially on businesses who do not display this notice.
The guidelines for factories, plants and warehouses are welcome for businesses in this area, many of which are eager to resume operations. However, they come late in the day for some factories, warehouses and plants which have been operating in some capacity throughout the lockdown without clarity on how to maintain Covid-19 safety standards.
The government's recovery strategy published on 11 May 2020 made clear that, from 13 May 2020 sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, were allowed to reopen, provided they follow Covid-secure guidelines.
Given that manufacturing has been a focus sector for the HSE due to its relatively poor health and safety record, it is likely that the HSE will closely scrutinise factory, warehouse or plant operators' compliance with the relevant guidelines.
Factory, warehouse and plant operators should review the guidelines as soon as possible and implement the recommendations to protect the health and safety of their workforce and others affected by their business as far as reasonably practicable.
If you have any health and safety-related questions or concerns about your business in light of the coronavirus outbreak, Fieldfisher's health and safety team will be happy to discuss your specific circumstances with you.
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