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How to return to work: Health and safety considerations for employers bringing staff back into the workplace

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United Kingdom

As the UK government begins to implement its back to work strategy, Fieldfisher health and safety experts Andrew Sanderson and Elliott Kenton outline some of the practical issues employers will need to consider.

  One of the chief considerations facing the UK government is how workers can safely return to work across all sectors of the British economy, following the relaxation of the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown.
 
Safeguarding the health and safety of employees is a statutory obligation on every employer, enshrined in health and safety law, but employers will be relying on the government to clarify what approach they should take to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
 
There has been speculation that official guidance will recommend minimising the number of workers sharing equipment, staggering shift times and continuing to maximise working from home (see our previous article in relation to homeworking).
 
While homeworking has been widely adopted and will continue to be the norm for many, it has been impossible for vast swaths of the UK workforce – for example in the retail and hospitality sectors – and even many office-based employers will ultimately require their workers to return to their place of work once restrictions are lifted.
 
Risk assessment
 
All employers should have workplace risk assessments in place. If an employer has more than five employees, this risk assessment should be recorded.
 
A risk assessment is not intended to be a resource and cost-intensive exercise, but rather a tool for employers to use to evaluate the safety of workplace activities.
 
An employer should think about whether the activities staff are required to perform can be done safely, and if control measures need to be implemented to maximise the health and safety of the workforce, as far as reasonably practicable.
 
The risk of COVID-19 infection will clearly be at the front of most employers' minds, and employers should immediately review their health and safety risk assessments with this disease in mind, so they can adjust working practices to allow employees can return to their usual place of work safely.
 
Some considerations for employers in light of COVID-19 include:
 
Knowing your workforce: An employer should consider whether any members of staff may be categorised as clinically extremely vulnerable.
 
Individuals in this category should have received a letter from the government informing them that they are in this group, or been told by their GP.
 
Most will have conveyed this to their employers, if they are employed, but it is worth considering government guidance on who is included to ensure no safeguarding opportunities are missed.
 
If an employer has vulnerable groups in its workforce, they must consider if and when it is reasonable and proportionate for those individuals to return to work.  
 
 
Social Distancing: Government guidance continues to place great emphasis on social distancing.
 
Employers should consider the usual workplace environment, how many employees work there and what measures should be implemented to achieve the social distancing required to prevent transmission of disease.
 
An employer may want to consider cycling days, in which a limited number of employees are required to be in the workplace to achieve the necessary distance; or, if this cannot be achieved, putting in protective screens or other barriers between employees and others.
 
For customer-facing businesses such as those in the retail sector, employers will need to consider how they can protect the health and safety of employees and customers. This may include measures to control the flow of customers, such as one-way systems, entry limits, additional signage and barriers.
 
 
Hygiene: Scientific evidence continues to recommend that regular handwashing is one of the most effective ways in combating the disease.
 
Employers should therefore consider introducing or increasing the availability of hand sanitisers and further hand-washing facilities, proportionate to the size of their workforce.
 
 
First Aid:  Employers should have adequate and appropriate first aid equipment, personnel and facilities in place to enable first aid to be administered to employees if they become ill (or are injured) at work.
 
Employers should review their first-aid provisions and consider whether they are still adequate and efficient. If there are fewer people in the office, it may be safe to continue with reduced first-aid certified personnel, or reduced facilities.
 
If they are concerned that they do not have adequate and appropriate first aid equipment, personnel and facilities, employers may wish to consider sharing first aid personnel or facilities with another business.
 
If an employer adopts this course of action, they need to be sure that the other business has the knowledge, experience and availability to cover the first aid needs of their particular business.   
 
 
Outlook for post-COVID-19 workplace health and safety
 
There are still numerous clarifications needed as to what transitional measures the government will introduce for returning to work.
 
While there is pressure to stabilise the economy and provide job security, public health should be protected as a priority.
 
Further clarity is imminent, but employers should still take proactive steps to consider how they will protect their workforce.
 
This article was authored by Andrew Sanderson and Elliott Kenton, a partner and associate respectively specialising in health and safety law at Fieldfisher.
 
 
 
 

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