Managing Employees back into the Workplace
Employers should attempt to reduce risk for employees being exposed to coronavirus, keep their options open and have the capability to adapt plans as the situation and advice evolves. From a health, safety and well-being perspective, what are the main aspects of the guidance about managing a return to the workplace?
The new ‘working safely’ guidance (click to follow the link for more detailed information Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) - Guidance - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) provides precautions that employers can take to manage risk and support their staff and customers.
The guidance basically states that employers have a high degree of responsibility to care for employees and customers as they return to the workplace. Measures include carrying out health and safety risk assessments and taking reasonable steps to mitigate risk.
The six pieces of guidance for various sectors of the economy cover a range of different types of work including all offices, factories and labs. Separate guidance covers construction and other outdoor work, events and visitor attractions, hotels and guest accommodation, restaurants, pubs, bars, nightclubs and takeaway services, shops and similar environments and close contact services, including hairdressers and beauticians. Employers may need to use more than one of these guides as necessary.
The previous guidance on social distancing and working from home etc is replaced with the following priorities:
1. COVID-19 risk assessments
The new guidance emphasises the role of risk assessments in ensuring a safe return to the workplace process. Subscribers to HRGuide can download our example Covid Workplace Risk Assessment Document.
2. Adequate ventilation
The government has placed more emphasis than it did previously on ventilation, also referring to the advice on air conditioning and ventilation on the HSE website. Ventilation now seems to have as much, if not more, emphasis than social distancing. As well as good ventilation, limiting the number of face-to-face contacts and reducing the number of people in an area is advised.
Employers with air-conditioned buildings or sealed window units could have the system checked and monitored, measuring air flow and fresh air. Most air conditioning systems do not need adjustment if they draw in a supply of fresh air. CO2 monitors can be used to indicate how well-ventilated workplaces are. HSE information suggests that CO2 monitors have limitations and test results can be misleading and are time-limited to the time of the test.
Some employers may be able to reduce occupancy levels or adopt social distancing to help ventilation issues.
Cleaning tips include reviewing cleaning procedures and providing hand sanitiser as well as frequent cleaning of work areas, objects and surfaces and equipment between uses including door handles and keyboards. Using usual cleaning products is fine but there is special guidance on cleaning after a confirmed case of the virus.
Extra non recycling bins may be needed to dispose of single use face coverings and PPE. Employers should continue to use signs and posters to remind employees about hand washing techniques and hygiene standards. Guidance on signage also suggests continuing to remind employees to maintain overall hygiene standards and wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed settings.
4. Turning away people with COVID-19 symptoms
A new aspect is that businesses are encouraged to turn away people with COVID-19 symptoms. This will be difficult for employers to determine as the initial symptoms of a cold and COVID-19 may be similar. It remains an offence to allow a person who should be self-isolating to come to work.
5. Enabling check in using the NHS COVID-19 App
Checking in using the NHS COVID-19 pass is not generally compulsory after 19 July. The app is available to individuals who are fully vaccinated, have tested negative (using a PCR or lateral flow test) in the previous 48 hours, or who have natural immunity because they had a positive PCR test in the previous six months.
The extensive guidance for restaurants, pubs etc says that the government will work with organisations that operate large, crowded settings (for example, nightclubs) to use the NHS COVID-19 pass as a condition of entry. Collection of customer contact details is no longer a legal requirement in most hospitality venues. It is thought that other hospitality businesses generally can opt in to using the pass, not just venues that operate large, crowded settings, and that it can be used for staff as well as customers. Businesses can choose to display a QR code to enable people to check in to a venue and can choose to record contact details for people who want to check in but do not have the app. This is encouraged to support NHS Test and Trace. Businesses do not have to ask people to check in or turn people away if they refuse.
6. Communication and training
The new guidance mentions consultation both with workers and trade unions. Employers should consult and communicate openly with employees and obtain written agreement to any contractual changes. Listening to employee’s views will ease employee relations during this difficult transitional time. Employers should consult with their employees about any return to the workplace and the proposed new infection control arrangements; good communication is essential. Employee engagement will ensure teams feel more confident about returning.
Employers should also discuss any issues with individual employees before any physical return to the workplace. This should be part of a broader re-induction process that takes on board any adjustments or ongoing support that people may need.