The government has published new guidance on working safely as we embark on Stage 4 of the Roadmap and, specifically, how to open workplaces while reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19. The guidance aims to provide employers with advice on sensible precautions to take to manage risk and support their staff and customers.
It does not supersede employers’ existing legal obligations in relation to health and safety, employment and equality: it is non-statutory guidance, for employers to consider when complying with their existing obligations. The guidance applies to workplaces in England only (follow these links for guidance applicable to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).
The guidance provides specific advice in relation to six different types of work, including construction, hospitality, retail, close contact services and events. This article focuses on the guidance for people who work in or run offices, factories, plants, warehouses, laboratories and research facilities and similar indoor environments.
Step 4: key changes
We moved into Stage 4 on 19 July 2021. The government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can. However, it “expects and recommends” a gradual return to the workplace over the summer. All businesses can re-open, restrictions on social contacts and gatherings have been lifted, and there is no longer a legal requirement to wear face coverings on public transport and at indoor venues. Social distancing guidance will no longer apply, which means employers are not required to implement social distancing in their workplace.
Priority actions to make your business safer
The guidance sets out six steps for employers to take to protect themselves, their staff and visitors:
1. Complete a health and safety risk assessment addressing the risk from COVID-19
As with other workplace hazards, employers must complete a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk of COVID-19 in their workplace, and identify control measures to manage that risk. Failure to do so may constitute a breach of health and safety legislation. Employers should consider making reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities, including those with hidden disabilities that are not immediately obvious.
Employers have a legal duty to consult workers on health and safety matters, including how the employer proposes to manage the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace. The outcome of these discussions may feed into the risk assessment. Consultation is also critical in gaining trust and will impact the willingness of the workforce to comply with new safety measures.
The guidance also reminds employers of the need to assess the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers, and to ensure that preventative steps do not have an unjustifiable negative impact on certain groups of employees (for example, those with caring responsibilities or religious commitments).
Employers should share the risk assessment with their staff and keep it updated.
2. Provide adequate ventilation
Employers should ensure there is a supply of fresh air to indoor spaces where people are present, because fresh air helps to dilute the virus. This can be natural ventilation (through opening windows, doors and vents), mechanical ventilation (using fans and ducts), or a combination of both. Employers are encouraged to use outside space where practical, and to consider if any reasonable steps could be taken to avoid congestion on their premises.
To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, employers might consider:
- Limiting the number of people with whom each person has contact by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ or "cohorting"
- Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other, or using back-to-back or side-to-side working, instead of face-to-face
- Encouraging the use of face coverings in enclosed and crowded spaces
Any employer who chooses to require workers to wear face coverings, should be mindful that some people are exempt from wearing face coverings and “face coverings may make it harder to communicate with people who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound.” An employer should consider any reasonable adjustments for staff and visitors with disabilities, and be aware of other equality issues arising from a requirement to wear face coverings.
3. Clean more frequently
Employers are reminded that it is especially important to clean surfaces that people touch frequently. Employers should also ask staff and visitors to use hand sanitiser and to clean their hands frequently.
If possible, workstations should be assigned to an individual. If workstations are shared (for example, “hot desking”), there “should be ways to clean them between each user.”
4. Keep people with COVID-19 symptoms away from the workplace
It remains a legal requirement for individuals to self-isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 or are told to do so by NHS Test and Trace, and employers should ensure that anybody who is legally required to self-isolate does not attend the workplace. Allowing a self-isolating worker to attend the workplace is a criminal offence.
Employers may want to consider encouraging staff members to remain away from the workplace in additional circumstances; for example, where the individual exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 but is awaiting test results, or has been in contact with a positive case but not been notified by NHS Test & Trace. In some circumstances, if the employee is unable to work from home, they may be entitled to their normal pay.
5. Enable people to check in at your venue
Doing so will assist NHS Test and Trace to contact those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 so that they can book a test.
6. Communicate and train
It is vital that employers communicate clearly with their workforce about new safety measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. It would be sensible to deliver training to workers prior to their return to the workplace, explaining any new procedures for arrival at the employer’s premises. The guidance also advises that employers should engage with workers on an ongoing basis “to monitor and understand any unforeseen impacts of changes to working environments”, and to be alert to staff members struggling with poor mental health.
Employers should also consider how safety precautions can be communicated to contractors and visitors to their premises.
For a discussion on how employers can manage a sensitive transition back to workplace, see here, and for further information on other issues for employers to consider when preparing for the easing of restrictions, see here. Our toolkit designed to assist businesses in preparing for new ways of working as we start to recover from the pandemic, can be accessed here.