It’s a difficult decision knowing when the right time is to re-introduce your employees to the workplace particularly when you are office based and remote working has been working quite well. At SeedLegals we have been discussing this continuously and there seems no single solution that works for all, at least for now.
However, we believe that day will come and one key consideration that we all must do before we set our date is follow government guidelines which say that we must create and circulate an internal risk assessment regarding the possibility of transmission of Covid-19 in the workplace.
So what does that risk assessment look like, who is involved in putting it together and what else do you need to do? Here’s what you need to know.
The UK government has issued guidance for businesses reopening their office doors to employees. As an employer, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 you have a responsibility to ensure the safety of your team, so it is important that you identify hazards and take action to reduce the risk of any of your employees contracting Covid-19 – this is what we call the ‘Risk Assessment’. It should go without saying that mental health is as important as the physical health of your employees, and should be prioritised as such.
The Risk Assessment
Which Employees Will Return To Work
It might be that not all of your employees can return to work on day one. You need to consider those team members who are clinically extremely vulnerable (shielding) who must not work outside the home. Some thoughts you might give to this are:
- creating a discrete reporting system so your employees can identify themselves or those they live with as vulnerable and you can plan accordingly;
- plan for people working at home who have someone shielding in their household;
- help employees at increased risk to work from home, either in their current role or an alternative role;
- where people at increased risk cannot work from home, offer them the safest available roles and plan for people who need to self-isolate.
The Work Area
Your team should only go on essential trips within buildings, sites and properties and try to maintain social distancing as much as possible. You might also consider:
- restricting the amount that people rotate between jobs and equipment;
- limiting the number of people who use lifts and work vehicles;
- reducing the number of people in high traffic areas including lifts, corridors, turnstiles and walkways;
- marking areas using floor paint or tape to help people keep a 1m distance;
- using virtual online ‘areas’ to discuss tasks or meet with customers. If customers need to come to your workplace, you should plan the number and type of visitors to minimise the number of visitors coming in at any one time;
- If meeting rooms have to be used, think about creating work ‘bubbles’ so that the same employees use the same meeting rooms to minimise transmission
Travelling to the office is just as important as the work environment itself. You should talk to your colleagues about using their own transport (including walking or cycling if it is safe to do so) when getting to and from work to maintain social distancing. Where possible employers might also consider:
- staggering arrival and departure times so people can keep to the 1m social distancing rules by not using entry/exit points at the same time;
- providing handwashing facilities (running water, soap and paper towels) at entry/exit points. People should be able to wash their hands when they get to work and leave. If this is not possible, think about providing hand sanitiser in those areas;
- Providing single use masks and gloves that can be taken for the journey home should any of your staff feel safer using that equipment.
Where People Cannot Work 1m Apart
Where it’s not possible for people to be 1m apart, you should try and put in additional measures:
- considering whether an activity needs to continue for the business to operate;
- keeping the activity time involved as short as possible;
- using screens or barriers to separate people from each other;
- using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible;
- reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’.
Employees should recognise this is a time at which employees may be suffering from personal health worries, illness or bereavement and social isolation. For these reasons, there should be an increase in the support measures implemented to protect mental health, including communicating more often with your employees about their personal concerns, encouraging employees to access support and take holiday, and watching for and responding quickly to signs of distress.
Common areas are slightly more tricky and you should work closely with the building manager so that your plans are aligned. Common areas include the meeting rooms, kitchens, canteens, toilets, showers, and changing facilities. A joined up approach could be:
- physically moving tables/chairs so they are 2 m apart;
- staggering break times so that people are not using break rooms, canteens, rest areas or changing facilities at the same time to maintain social distancing;
- where this is not possible, creating additional space for people to take their breaks in;
- marking areas using floor paint or tape to help people keep a 2 m distance;
- using outside areas for breaks if the locations are suitable and it is safe to do so;
- encouraging employees to stay on-site during working hours. Where employees cannot keep a 2 m physical distance, we will ensure common areas have a stepped up cleaning routine including deep cleaning the office regularly to prevent transmission by touching contaminated surfaces;
- improving the frequency of cleaning in the common areas particularly around objects and surfaces that are touched regularly.
Good hygiene is paramount. You may already have many of these measures in place but in addition you could:
- provide hand sanitiser in addition to washing facilities;
- use signs and posters to increase awareness of good hand washing technique;
- provide regular reminders on avoiding touching your face and to cough/sneeze into your arm; provide hand sanitiser in multiple locations in addition to washrooms;
- set clear guidance for the cleaning of toilets, showers and changing facilities to make sure they are kept clean;
- set clear guidance on how to handle goods, merchandise and materials and when cleaning procedures need to be followed.
- leave doors open that can be left open (taking fire safety into consideration) to reduce the need for people to touch door handles.
- consider changing door handles, keypads and turnstiles to reduce surface contact, for example by using automatic door openers, or changing touch keypads for contactless ways to get in and out of buildings.
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
Do your team members require any PPE? Latest government guidance suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you. However, if a team member is infected but has not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others they come into close contact with. This is a personal decision and isn’t currently mandatory other than on public transport.
Equality of Treatment and Non-Discrimination
Remember that all employees are different. Some might be raring to get back to the office. Others, really nervous. Fairness and equality is more important now than ever.
- Set up working arrangements that don’t disadvantage employees with certain protected characteristics (such as those in particular age groups, disabled employees, women or pregnant employees).
- Wellbeing and diversity for all should be considered.
Who Is Involved In Putting This Together?
You should involve all employees in the decision-making processes in a way that considers their protected characteristics. For larger organisations you are also legally required to consult with employee representatives or relevant trade unions to get their input on the risk assessment.
What Should You Do Now?
Complete your risk assessment, using some of the tips above and thinking about what reasonably practicable measures you can take to reduce those risks.
Government guidance makes it clear that businesses need only publish the results of their risk assessment, rather than the risk assessment document itself. What this means is that you don’t need to publish all documentation created during your risk assessment process but rather you should focus on the practical steps you will be taking to minimise the risks identified and how you can present them in a clear, user-friendly way.
If you have fewer than five employees, you don’t have to write anything down, but it might help if you do.
Consider what you will publish online.
Lastly, monitor the risk assessment regularly. It’s meant to be a working document to ensure and promote a safe, health and happy place of work.