Correct as of 13 May 2020
As part of HM UK Government's COVID Recovery Strategy they are encouraging businesses in England to re-open premises where working from home is not possible. As part of this strategy, businesses are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the 'COVID Secure' guidance, which has now been published, in order that they can resume their activities safely as the UK moves to the next stage of dealing with the pandemic.
While this guidance has been set by the UK Government it states explicitly that this guidance should be considered alongside local public health and safety requirements and legislation in the devolved administrations. This means businesses operating across the devolved nations will have to be aware of possible national variations to the guidance, although it is hoped that these will be minor differences. However, given that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the "Stay at Home" guidance is still being given, businesses in these nations may be well advised to wait for a change in this message before re-opening workplaces. Preparatory steps, though, can be taken in order that workplaces can be ready to be re-opened when safe and permitted.
The guidance will be updated periodically as the UK moves through the pandemic and scientific advice is updated, meaning employers are encouraged to check regularly for updates to the guidance
In this blog we will be summarising the key considerations that employers with office premises will need to consider from the COVID Secure guidance. This includes other indoor environments such as contact centres, operations rooms and similar workplaces. While many of these considerations will be common sense, it will be vital for employers to take such steps to ensure the safety of their employees, and to encourage employees back to the workplace.
The first UK Government recommendation is to identify potential risks and carry out a risk assessment. employers will be familiar with carrying out risk assessments generally, as they have a legal responsibility to protect the health and safety of their employees. The requirement moving forward is to complete a specific risk assessment for COVID-19, this will mean employers have to consider applicable risks arising from the virus and potential steps employers can take to minimise those risks.
Employers are being asked to share the results of their risk assessment with their workforce, and if possible, employers should consider publishing the results on their website. The UK Government has also stated that they would expect all employers with over 50 workers to do so. It is unclear whether or not this request to publish will be enforced in anyway but any way - there is no mechanism for doing so at present - but employers are encouraged to share their results.
Who should attend work?
The second element from the guidance surrounds those who should be at work. The guidance makes clear that those who can work from home should continue to do so for the time being. It gives examples of individuals who might not be able to work from home, including, for example, those who are involved in safe facility management.
The guidance then makes particular note of those individuals who are currently shielding because they are at higher risk from the virus. The guidance notes that these individuals should be helped to work from home, either in their current role or in an alternative role. It makes explicit mention of the Equality Act and considerations employers have with regards to expectant mothers and disabled individuals. Employers will need to be especially mindful of these groups when re-opening to ensure that the necessary adjustments are made for those individuals.
If Employers are concerned in relation to their obligations under the Equality Act and how these relate to a resuming their operations they are encouraged to take early advice.
The current situation is that Scotland remains locked-down more than in England and while some relaxations have been made for work in England (people returning to work where they cannot work from home and their place of work has not been closed) the situation remains tighter in Scotland, with guidance remaining that people should not open their offices, businesses, etc, unless they are involved in critical supply.
We would see this as a significant area of potential risk and challenge for employers, and so it is crucial that businesses take, and document, appropriate steps and communicate appropriately with employees.
Social Distancing at work
The UK Government has stressed that where employees are required back to work that, where possible social distancing, should be maintained at all times whilst people are at work. This should include measures to manage entrance and exit from the workplace, movement around the workplace, at their workstation, during meetings and in break rooms. A number of examples of how this could be achieved are offered in the guidance. It is explained though that in event of an emergency such as a fire evacuation then social distancing can be relaxed in order to achieve the safe exit from the building in such an event.
Managing customers, contractors and visitors
It is accepted that business will have other individuals visiting their premises from time to time during the course of normal business but employers should seek to minimise the number of unnecessary visits to offices. If individuals from outside do need to attend then they should be notified in advance of the relevant safety measures and what they need to do when entering their workplace.
Cleaning and hygiene
The UK Government has stressed the importance of a clean workplace and good hygiene amongst staff in order that the virus doesn't linger on surfaces. They have advised that offices should be cleaned thoroughly prior to re-opening and that they should be cleaned regularly when employees return. In addition additional facilities should be provided to enable employees to wash their hands regularly whilst at work.
PPE and Face Coverings
In this guidance, the UK Government has downplayed the use of PPE within the office setting, stressing that social distancing is a much more effective method of prevention than wearing PPE. It does state that if staff want to wear a face covering while at work they can do so, but this does not mean they don't have to follow other guidance. Staff should be aware of the limited benefits of face coverings and the importance of following other measures.
Aside from physical measures that may be taken employers are encouraged to manage their employees effectively in order to manage a safe return to work. This will include effective communication prior to re-opening on the measures taken and behaviours expected, as well as regular communication if changes are made.
Also employers are encouraged to look at shift patterns and working groups to minimise the amount of individuals that employees have contact with. Creating distinct groups and reducing the number of contacts is seen as an effective way to manage risks.
Employers should also seek to minimise and avoid unnecessary work travel, and if travel is required, to take appropriate measures to keep people safe when they do need to travel between locations.
Inbound and Outbound Goods
The final piece of guidance relates to goods entering and leaving the building. Social distancing should be maintained and a set drop off point is recommended to avoid taking goods directly from couriers. Further, to avoid surface transmission when goods enter and leave the site the use of gloves and cleaning is encouraged.
Get in touch
If you've any queries about this, or any other employment related matter that could affect your business, our team of specialist employment lawyers can assist. Please contact us on 0131 247 2534 to discuss further.