Back To Work During The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Guide For Employers

With those who cannot work from home recently urged by the Prime Minister to go back to work if their workplace is open, and a ‘new normal’ on the horizon for when the rest follow, now is the time for employers to be thinking carefully about how they will integrate social distancing and other infection control measures into the workplace.

With this in mind, we have put together a useful at-a-glance returning to work pack covering the latest government guidelines; advice on how to implement a phased return; hygiene, cleaning and practical measures checklists, and other useful resources.

Download the pack here (PDF)

In addition to the pack, and so as to provide you with an even wider selection of helpful resources from trusted sources, we invite you to read on as we expand upon what we believe to be some of the most important considerations you need to be making at this time.

COVID-19 Risk Assessment a MUST

The law requires all employers to assess the risk of returning to work while the coronavirus outbreak is continuing, and to put steps in place to manage that risk.

The Government has been working with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), public health authorities, business bodies and unions to agree on ways workplaces can be made less infectious. This has formed the basis for the recently released ‘Working Safety During Coronavirus (COVID-19)’ guidance, a collection of resources to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the pandemic.

The HSE has also published a short guide, Working Safely During the Coronavirus Outbreak, outlining simple steps to take to help manage the risk whilst carrying on running your business.

The Institution of Occupational Health (IOSH) recommends consulting with your appointed health and safety advisor, as they will play a key role in assuring the highest possible levels of safety, well-being and health in your workplace. They will take responsibility for producing a new risk assessment for you that will outline the necessary steps to take to ensure adequate safeguards and controls are in place.

IOSH says such measures are likely to include:

  • Physical distancing by creating safe one-way systems around buildings
  • Staggered shift patterns
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation
  • Plant inspection
  • Hygiene arrangements
  • Personal protective equipment

These measures will of course all be dependent upon the results of your risk assessments.

Aside from your specific COVID-19 risk assessment, it is vital to review ALL risk assessments. This should include fire risk, manual handling, display screen equipment, PPE, COSHH and RIDDOR.

Adapting to change

IOSH has stressed the importance of considering how staff will adapt to returning to work. Whether they have been furloughed and need time to get used to a full working week again; they have been unwell, suffered a bereavement or generally need support from a mental health point of view for any number of reasons, there is a great deal to think about in this respect.

IOSH has published some very useful guidance on these issues which is well worth studying ahead of reopening your business premises.

Site layout, meetings and training

Screens and dividers are already being used in supermarkets and on production lines to prevent the spread of any virus. In other environments, such protection may be appropriate, such as in open plan offices for example.

IOSH suggests introducing a one-way system around buildings, and this could also be a good idea for larger offices. Furniture could be laid out to create such a system.

When it comes to meetings, thought must be given to the use of conference rooms. Numbers may need to be reduced to maintain social distancing. Where possible, meetings should be held digitally using the likes of Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Staff should also be encouraged to call, email or message rather than attend each other’s workstations.

As with meeting rooms, training areas can no longer be filled to the brim. Whilst this may affect productivity, again there are ways to tackle training needs including the use of digital conferencing. Otherwise, training numbers will need to be reduced to accommodate half the capacity of a room, according to IOSH.

The recent Government guidance suggests that taking steps to keep smaller, more contained teams in the workplace by staggering working hours will help to reduce risk. The proposed changes to the Job Retention Scheme for later in the year should make this easier by allowing employers to take staff out of furlough on a part time basis.

Other measures suggested include expanding bicycle storage, showering and changing facilities and providing car parking so that commuting staff have an alternative to public transport.

Workplace hygiene and cleaning

From workstations and transit areas to communal zones, shared facilities and air conditioning and ventilation, there is a great deal to take in when it comes to minimising exposure to the virus through enhanced workplace hygiene measures.

IOSH has developed a seven-step workplace hygiene guide together with a caution/care checklist, designed to help employers and staff stay safe at work. Caution/care points include the use of shared equipment; what constitutes appropriate disinfectant; food hygiene and handling and avoiding the use of re-circulated air and closed units.

Questions you may wish to ask are:

  • Should we put a stop to hot-desking?
  • Do we close communal dining areas?
  • What restrictions do we put on the use of refreshment stations?
  • Are we able to supply suitable disinfectant?
  • How do we provide natural ventilation?
  • What changes do we need to make to our cleaning regimes?

Our returning to work pack includes a useful hygiene and cleaning checklist which we would urge you to study.

Passenger lifts and staircases

Aside from the sanitisation of handrails, door handles and plates and control panels, there are other important things to think about in relation to the use of passenger lifts and staircases as people return to work.

The Lift and Escalator Industry Association (LEIA) has helpfully put together a useful COVID-19 guide to lifts, escalator and moving walks for both users and owners.

The comprehensive guidance lists user precautions and owner considerations covering handrails and buttons, lift cars and lift lobbies.

Suggestions include using the ‘bus stop’ mode where available so that elevator passengers do not have to press buttons, and fitting disinfection units to escalators and moving walks, as well as staggering start and finish times for workers, and encouraging the use of stairways as an alternative where possible.

Regarding staircases, signage should be introduced providing clear instructions as to which side of the stairway users should stick to, as well as of course instructing users on maintaining a two-metre distance from the person in front of them. Where a building has more than one staircase, these could be segregated so that one is used for upwards-bound traffic and the other for those coming down.

Other practical measures

Our returning to work pack includes a very helpful checklist covering a range of practical measures. Highlights include:

Testing and investigations

  • Remember that legionella tests are required by law, and that the legionella risks during lockdown due to water stagnation will be increased, as could the risk of pest infestation in unoccupied premises.
  • Fire safety and security equipment must be adequately tested and service providers informed of any procedural changes during lockdown.

Important things to review

  • Site visit policies and procedures.
  • Emergency planning procedures including first aid, fire evacuation, chemical spills, etc.
  • Security measures for unoccupied premises.

Insurance warranties

  • Alarm and security conditions – if you are required to operate a monitored alarm, is the receiving centre able to continue servicing your contract?
  • Unattended machinery or processes conditions – do you have sufficient staff to operate machinery correctly? Are they operating unattended?
  • Heat application warranties – are you able to check that the use of heat has not caused an issue?
  • Waste removal warranties – is waste still being removed from your site?

Keeping staff in the loop

Many staff will understandably be feeling anxious about returning to work, so it is wise to communicate with everyone ahead of their first day back, explaining the proposed changes and measures being put in place to protect them. It is also a good idea to welcome feedback, and ensure there is an open door policy when it comes to raising any concerns.

The HSE has published a guide to talking with your workers about preventing coronavirus. Aimed at all employers, the guide explains how you can talk to your staff about preventing coronavirus in the workplace, for example by putting social distancing measures in place, staggering shifts and providing additional handwashing facilities.

Further useful resources

IOSH has a useful resource hub dedicated to COVID-19.

Further detailed guidance is also available on GOV.UK for the following specific work settings:

  • Construction and other outdoor work
  • Factories, plants and warehouses
  • Homes
  • Labs and research facilities
  • Offices and contact centres
  • Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery
  • Shops and branches
  • Vehicles

Team RG is here to support you through the pandemic situation. Should you have any questions from an insurance point of view, you are welcome to get in touch with your usual contact. We are running a fully uninterrupted service to ensure you have access to all the advice you need at this time.