This past few months have seen unprecedented and unavoidable changes to all of our lives both personally and professionally. Everyone’s journey has been different whether you are a key worker and still going about your normal routine, or someone that is working from home or furloughed. Social media has been taken over with images of homeschooling, baking cakes, living room workouts and BBQ’s by the fire pit. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic will be felt for years to come and will be a time that we all remember for different reasons.  But as restrictions start to ease and we prepare to return to a new form of normal, we look at how employers can create a covid-19 safe workplace so that employees can return to work with confidence.

1. Carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment

The first step is to conduct a Covid-19 risk assessment.  Employers and employees and their recognised trade union or other representatives have a shared responsibility to work together to resolve concerns about safety in the workplace.  By conducting a risk assessment in consultation with employees and trade unions, it reinforces the company’s accountability and duty of care to their staff.

When carrying out a Covid-19 risk assessment, employers must look at the specific risks presented by the Coronavirus Pandemic by:

  • Identifying what work tasks or situations may cause transmission of the virus
  • Consider who could be at risk and identify vulnerable staff members or anyone with an underlying condition
  • Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed
  • Act promptly to remove the task or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk

The results from your risk assessment should be shared with employees and communicated effectively so that employees understand they have a legal duty to follow instructions regarding safe working practices. All employees should understand the risks involved and the measures that should be taken to deal with those risks.  Relevant posters should be displayed with a call to action such as ‘social distance’ or ‘wash hands’

The risk assessment should be considered a working document that is reviewed regularly in line with government announcements and is responsive to relaxations and tightening of restrictions.

2. Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures

All businesses should now be implementing a strict cleaning regime.  All touch points i.e. door handles, keypads, lift buttons, computer touch screens, stair handles and work surfaces should be cleaned regularly throughout the day.  Other measures such as the use of pedal operated waste bins and electric doors should be in use where possible.

Clear guidance should be in force for the cleaning of toilets, changing facilities, kitchens and canteens and areas that are touched regularly should be disinfected frequently.  If there is equipment, tools or vehicles used by multiple staff, they should be cleaned after each use.

Employers should ensure there are signs and posters displayed in the workplace to help your employees/visitors practice good handwashing techniques and to remind them to cough/sneeze into an arm and avoid touching their faces.

Facilities should be available to anyone in your premises with hot water and soap to wash hands for at least 20 seconds.  Sanitiser should also be available at various touch points such as entrances, exits, restrooms etc.

Make sure that surfaces remain clean. This may mean increasing the level and frequency of cleaning as well as cleaning surfaces that you may not ordinarily clean. A rota should be kept for all cleaning duties and marked when completed.

All staff has a level of personal responsibility to ensure they comply with the procedures set.

3. Help people to work from home where possible

Through this pandemic, we have seen a huge rise in the number of employees working from home.  Employees should be given the relevant equipment when working from home and the support to do their role.  When you have employees working from home, it is important to stay in contact with them during their working day, even if this is via email, telephone or video call.  Employees should work from home when possible.

However  you have identified people who cannot work from home for example if they work a piece of machinery, are customer facing or for their particular role, working from home is unavoidable; you should consider what changes can be implemented to reduce risk. This may include staggering arrival and departure times of employees, opening up other entrance points if available so all employees are not coming through the same route and providing handwashing/sanitiser at entry/exit points.

4. Social distancing and use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Where possible, keep work areas 2 metres apart and allocate one person only to each work area. If this is not feasible, then keep the number of people in each work area as low as possible.  Employers should keep up to date with government guidelines as there are current discussions to reduce this rule to 1 metre.

To help workers to social distance you can:

  • Insert floor tape or paint to mark work areas clearly
  • Provide signage to remind people to keep a 2m distance from one another
  • Social distancing should apply to public areas in the workplace such as corridors, lifts, stairways and entrances etc. to avoid risk of congestion
  • Use protective screens to create a physical barrier between people
  • Have employees working back-to-back or side-by-side rather than face-to-face – when this cannot be achieved then other safety measures such as the use of PPE will be required.
  • Limit the movement of people in the area by rotating jobs/equipment, lifts and vehicles and allow only essential trips between buildings/departments.
  • Non-essential travel should be avoided, where this is not possible, employees should travel alone. If they have to travel together, vehicles should be sanitised and have good ventilation.
  • Stagger the start/finish time of employees as well as tea/lunch breaks to reduce the amount of people in an area at any one time.
  • Canteens should have social distancing measures in place and outside areas should be utilised where possible for breaks.
  • Packaged meals may also help employers to operate canteen facilities and also the reconfiguration of seating areas to maintain social distancing.

For non-health workers and sectors, based on current evidence, there is very little scientific evidence of widespread benefit from PPE. Instead, practising good hand hygiene and social distancing is key to minimising the risk of infection.

We emphasise and reassure employers that for the majority the most effective way they can ensure that their employees are safe at work is to alter business-as-usual ways of working to ensure social distancing can take place. Ensure staff is aware and signs are visible in the workplace reminding employees and customers not to enter the premises if they have COVID-19 symptoms such as a high temperature or persistent cough (or a member of their household displays symptoms) and to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

5. Communicate with your employees

Keeping in touch with employees is paramount during this uncertain time.  Employers should have a working group comprised of both management and employees to deal with Covid health and safety issues, which should then be communicated effectively to employees.

The most important part of communication is listening. Therefore employers should do everything they can to gauge employees concerns, questions and opinions so you can consider this in the organisational decision-making and communicate back to staff.

It is important to be honest about what you don’t know. Often people are tempted to try and provide people with certainty and reassurance. But in such an uncertain situation it is much better to say ‘here are the questions we don’t have an answer to yet’ than say nothing or say more than you can really commit to. One way you can provide some stability is by committing to communicating frequently and at predictable times. Even if you don’t have much new to say, using a weekly video or email to update staff on the current position will help to reinforce understanding.

Key messages should be circulated regularly using a combination of communication such as visible posters around the premises, emails and video notifications.

Employees should be communicated to by their line manager also to ensure they are fully aware of all the policies and procedures in place. Where appropriate, communications should be translated for those whom English is not their first language and those who may struggle with written or verbal communication.

Employers should ensure they protect those who are at higher risk and are shielding, they must also respect if an employee is shielding due to a family member being vulnerable.

If an employee has symptoms of coronavirus or someone in their household is showing symptoms, the employee should notify their employer immediately and return home if they are on-site.  Employers should ensure that all employees know the symptoms associated with coronavirus and the actions to take if they become infected.

Employers should continue to keep up to date with government advice and seek help if necessary form government and public health bodies and independent advisers/consultants.

Conclusion

It is important to conduct a Covid-19 specific risk assessment for your business to identify any possible risks to employees.

The Health & Safety Executive for NI has produced a template risk assessment which is available via the link: https://www.hseni.gov.uk/publications/example-covid-19-risk-assessment-template

Please note that the measures listed in this article are not exhaustive and not a substitute for carrying out a site and business specific Covid 19 risk assessment. There will be additional measures required for different industries and business sectors. You should therefore seek specific advice relative to your own circumstances in order to ensure that your workplace is safe.