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What will a 'Covid-secure' workplace look like?


United Kingdom

As UK industries receive their first specific guidance on how to implement effective coronavirus-control measures at business premises, Fieldfisher health and safety experts Andrew Sanderson and Elliott Kenton assess the government recommendations.

  The UK government has released its "Covid-secure" guidance promised as part of its recovery strategy for the UK economy.

The guidance applies to businesses which are already open, or are anticipated to be among the first to reopen as part of measures to ease the coronavirus lockdown.

It comprises eight sets of guidelines for the following industries/work settings:

(i) Construction and outdoor work;
(ii) Factories, plants and warehouses;
(iii) Homes;
(iv) Labs and research facilities;
(v) Offices and contact centres;
(vi) Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery;
(vii) Shops and branches; and
(viii) Those working with vehicles.
All the guidelines are intended to set out pragmatic actions employers can take to keep workplaces as safe as possible and to give their workforces the confidence to return to work safely.

It is expected that further Covid-secure guidance will be released as the government moves through the transitional steps outlined in the recovery strategy, which should ultimately see the majority of workplaces reopen by July.

Five key steps to Covid-security

The guidelines outline five key steps to make workplaces Covid-secure.

These are:

1. Working from home

Employers should be taking all reasonable steps to help people work from home, wherever possible.

2. Covid-19 risk assessments

As anticipated in our previous guidance, employers should review their health and safety risk assessments with coronavirus in mind and implement control measures to combat the disease.

The government has now stated that employers will need to carry out special Covid-19 risk assessments; what differentiates these from a general risk assessment is that Covid-19 risk assessments should be published and for employers with more than 50 employees, employers are expected to publish the results of these risk assessments on their websites.

This is likely to lead to greater public scrutiny of the risk assessment that the employer has put in place coupled with more formal consultations with employees and trade unions, who may challenge the implemented control measures for not going far enough to protect workers.
3. Social distancing

Employers should redesign workspaces to maintain two-metre distances between people.

This can include staggering shift patterns, creating one-way walk-throughs, opening more entrances or exits or changing seating layouts.

4. Barriers and orientation

Where people cannot keep two metres apart, barriers will need to implemented to minimise transmission risk, or people should be positioned facing away from each other.

These control measures should be incorporated into employers' Covid-19 risk assessments.

5. Hygiene

Workplaces need to be cleaned as frequently as possible with particular focus on high-contact objects, such as door handles and lift buttons.

Employers should also provide extra handwashing/hand sanitisation facilities for their employees.

A downloadable notice can now be put up by employers in their workplace to show employees, customers and other visitors that they have followed the work-setting specific guidelines.

With the government pumping an extra £14 million into the HSE's budget, an equivalent of 10% of their annual budget, it is expected that there will be increased enforcement by the HSE as employers come under close scrutiny for any perceived Covid-19 failures.

'Gig' workers

There have been calls from the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to extend the duty of care to safeguard health and safety to gig economy workers.

An employer has a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and others that may be affected by their business. Therefore, health and safety law is arguably broad enough to afford protections to non-employees such as the self-employed and gig workers.

Courier drivers may benefit from the new guidelines for those working with vehicles, but generally, gig workers and their representative unions may feel that this guidance does not go far enough to protect them we could see a spate of judicial review cases on this point.

For further guidance and recommendations, please see our earlier article: How to return to work: Health and safety considerations for employers bringing staff back into the workplace

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