The easing of Covid restrictions came as a long-awaited relief for many businesses. The doors are open, staff are working, and it feels as though we’ve moved into a new phase for employers and employees.
However, we’re not out of the woods yet and a two-fold challenge has emerged.
Keep suitable controls through autumn and winter
Firstly, let’s be clear, regardless of the government’s timing on relaxation of rules and restrictions, coronavirus has certainly not disappeared. It is still very much an occupational hazard which we cannot eliminate. For employers it’s therefore essential we do not drop Covid-secure measures entirely.
The jury is out on the effectiveness of some controls such as lockdowns, isolation periods, foreign travel and face coverings – although the requirement to wear these in many public spaces remains. What has worked however, and what will continue to work will be social distancing between individuals where possible, regular cleaning, good personal hygiene, ventilation, lateral flow testing, isolation of positive/suspected cases and for businesses to have an emergency action plan to deal with potential outbreaks. Many of these actions are good practice in workplaces and public areas, regardless of a pandemic.
These areas should therefore form the basis for continued risk assessments, regardless of the work task or space.
Perspex screens or plastic see-through barriers are a common sight, and it is sensible to keep these in place wherever possible, particularly in high traffic and multipurpose areas. If someone is behind a screen and they come in proximity to someone who tests positive for Covid-19, as long as they have their contact tracing turned off on their app (which is current guidance for those working beside somebody else but behind a screen), and they do not come into contact with the person elsewhere, they will not need to isolate.
Face coverings remain a contentious issue. A face covering is not an item of personal protective equipment (PPE) and therefore not regulated by the Health and Safety Executive or Local Authority under health and safety law. It is also no longer legally required under coronavirus law.
If it was PPE, an employer could require employees to wear one, as their risk assessment would stipulate that PPE must be worn for certain activities or locations. Employers can however impose their own house rules or rules of entry. Current government guidance says it is down to the judgement of the individual, but that face coverings are strongly recommended in crowded indoor spaces. This said, from an employer perspective, it is your private property and so long as you do not discriminate unlawfully you can dictate the house rules or rule of entry.
Reaffirm non-Covid safety
Secondly, with life returning to a degree of normality, now is a vitally important time for employers to focus on other areas of safety and staff training which could easily have been overlooked or lacking in priority in recent months.
Health & Safety Executive stats released in July showed that more workplace fatalities were recorded in Great Britain last year, despite fewer people working. Tragically, 142 workers were killed at work between March 2020 and March 2021, up from 111 the year prior. While many of these deaths were in sectors such as construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing, it certainly suggests that staff absence and changes in the workforce caused by Covid could have compromised safety standards in the workplace.
These figures should serve as a timely reminder to us all – as employers we must ensure we’re doing all that is reasonably practicable to protect workers and others affected by their work activities. This ranges from office-based employees returning to the workplace, to hospitality, retail and leisure businesses which have a responsibility to consumers.
For example, it is easy for employers to overlook the property compliance areas that may have been taken for granted previously. Ensure water hygiene, gas and electrical safety checks are up to date, reinstate routine service and inspection programmes for equipment and building systems and update first aid and fire safety arrangements to reflect working patterns.
The tribulations of the past 18 months have had many consequences on every employer. With more normal operation returning as we emerge from the pandemic, directors and managers must make sure they have carefully reviewed all of their risk assessments, in particular identifying where process, equipment and staffing may have changed or reverted.
My top advice?
Involve your team members in your review, communicate your findings back to them, and ensure follow-up action.
As we transition back to offices and consumer-facing businesses capitalise on demand, thousands of new young workers are entering the workplace, in addition to recent returners from furlough and homeworking. Robust training for new staff as well as refresher training for others is crucial in ensuring everyone remains as safe as possible. Continuing to focus on safety means every business can operate with confidence, with reassured staff and happy customers.