Across the UK, staff are returning to a changed workplace. Government guidelines now require that a range of COVID-secure measures be taken, such as enhanced hygiene protocols, socially-distanced workstations and staggered shifts.
The new guidance is deemed necessary to control the spread of coronavirus, but following the new rules blindly could create more serious health and safety risks elsewhere. This article looks at what SMEs can do to find a balance between COVID security and existing workplace safety regulations.
The general Government guidelines set out five practical steps for making your workplace “COVID safe”.
1. COVID risk assessments
Businesses returning to work must carry out a coronavirus-specific risk assessment. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provide a detailed guide to this process.
It is essential that the person carrying out the assessment is familiar with the company’s existing health and safety procedures, and is mindful of potential conflicts and confusion when assessing risks.
If a COVID risk is identified, management of that risk must take into account other pre-existing risks. Where COVID guidelines conflict with established company procedure or best practice, workers should be informed of the conflict and consulted on possible solutions. This will help to ensure staff buy in to the changes, and reduces the risk of non-compliant workarounds being created to “fix” the new rules.
By now, everyone is familiar with the need to regularly and thoroughly wash hands and ensure surfaces stay clean. When you draw up new hygiene procedures, however, you must consider the practical application and consequences of new rules.
If cleaning must be carried out more regularly, where will the supplies be stored? Are staff familiar with how to use stronger cleaning products? Is there signage to warn staff and visitors that in-hours cleaning will be taking place?
If PPE like gloves and masks are supplied, how will they be disposed of? Aside from the risk of transmission, discarded PPE can easily create trip hazard.
The official position is changing from “work from home if you can” to “return to work if you can”. Despite the abrupt switch to homeworking when lockdown began, many businesses have made a success of remote working.
From SMEs to multinationals like Facebook, many firms are now not planning to return to the pre-pandemic office-centric workplace. If your business is continuing to offer homeworking to staff, now would be a good time to update homeworking risk assessments.
When the lockdown hit, the focus of remote working health and safety was on the immediate hazards facing first-time homeworkers. Obvious risks like trailing wires and files around an ad hoc workstation should have been addressed by now.
As homeworkers transition into a new phase of long-term or permanent remote working, there are other, less obvious hazards that your procedures must manage. These risks include occupational health issues like carpal tunnel, back pain and eye strain.
You also have a duty to safeguard employees against mental health risks. These issues can be harder to manage remotely, and the damage hard to spot until a worker’s mental health has deteriorated. Revised health and safety policies must consider how to identify and manage the risk of mental health problems associated with the additional stresses of homeworking, loneliness and other factors.
4. Social distancing in the workplace
Although the 2m physical distancing rule has been revised down to 1m-plus, the safest distance will depend on the context of your work environment. If your staff work outdoors, or in conditions with very good ventilation, 1m-plus is likely to be sufficient. In more enclosed spaces without good airflow, 2m may be a minimum.
Staggering shifts and one-way systems are suggested as a way to avoid staff getting too close when moving around the office, and repositioning workers so that they do not face each other is also recommended by the guidelines.
However, following these guidelines could create or amplify other risks. If there are fewer workers present at any one time, will there always be a first-aider or fire safety officer present? If there are only two employees in the office and one is injured, does the other worker know whether to attend to their colleague or leave to get help?
Repositioning workers can also have safety consequences, particularly in loud environments. Workers wearing ear protection and facing away from each other may not notice emerging hazards. If workers are moved further away from equipment they need to access regularly, that could actually increase the risk of exposure by moving past other staff more frequently and touching more surfaces.
5. Managing COVID risks where 2m distancing is not possible
The official guidelines recognise that social distancing is impractical in certain workplaces, and when performing certain tasks. If two workers are required to move a smaller heavy object, like bar staff moving a barrel, distancing is impossible.
When assessing COVID risks, if a task that requires staff to be within 2m cannot be removed or restructured, it is important to address this with workers, rather than gloss over the problem as unsolvable. Staff consultation may produce a solution you have not considered, but will make employees aware that the issue has been considered and the risks weighed.
If staff are unaware of the outcome of risk assessment, they may attempt an unsafe, makeshift solution in an attempt to comply with COVID guidelines. In the above example, unsupervised bar staff may decide it is “safer” to move a barrel single-handed, creating a risk of back injury or worse that exceeds the COVID risk.
Consultation and practical monitoring of COVID changes
Employees will understandably be nervous about returning to work to begin with. Further anxiety could be caused when they return to a changed workplace, with new rules to learn, new workstation arrangements and new shift structures.
Clear, two-way communication with workers before and after the return is a useful way to both manage stress and anxiety, and also understand employees’ individual concerns more clearly.
When you carry out the COVID-specific risk assessment, and update existing health and safety policies, staff consultation will prove invaluable. If workers feel involved in the process, and understand why certain decisions have been taken, they will be more likely to comply.
It is particularly important that staff understand the need to find a balance between COVID concerns and existing health and safety. The risk of transmission does not trump all other hazards.
We’re entering uncharted waters, and it is unlikely that your revised, COVID-secure policies will be perfect. The risk assessment should be treated as the start of an ongoing process. Once the policies are implemented, you should actively monitor their use, addressing unforeseen conflicts and hazards as they arise.
Although a company-wide virus outbreak could be a serious blow, realistically the risk of this is low. The impact on morale and productivity caused by a serious accident could be catastrophic. Communication, clear rules, and a flexible, consultative approach will be key to helping your workforce return in an informed, confident and, above all, safe manner.
About Chris Salmon
Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services. Chris has played key roles in the founding and shaping of a number of legal services brands and is a regular commentator on workplace injury and illness in the legal press. Find out more at quittance.co.uk.
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