The Prime Minister has been on TV three times in a couple of days, setting out the Government’s guidance and timings for relaxing the social elements of the lockdown and getting businesses to re-open. A 50 page document was published on 11th May and that has been followed by extensive new content on various .GOV websites. 13th May, was the first day of stage one of the unlockdown process and many businesses will be looking to reopen or increase activity.

The Government has provided extensive guidance on COVID return to work safety in a variety of different working environments. Employers need to review these carefully and be aware that their operations may cross over into multiple environments on the list – see below.

The .GOV sites clearly state that these new COVID safety measures are “non statutory guidance”, meaning businesses would not be breaking any laws if they breached them, Normal H&S legislation remains in place as does the employer’s duty of care obligations.

Employers are advised to conduct a Coronavirus return to work safety risk assessment and share with employees, customers and suppliers evidence that this has been carried out:

Working environments with specific safety guidance

  • Construction and other outdoor work
  • Factories, plants and warehouses
  • Laboratories and research facilities
  • Offices and contact centres
  • Other people’s homes
  • Restaurants offering take away and delivery services
  • Shops and branches
  • Vehicles

Business may well work in multiple environments (e.g. office, warehouse and delivery fleet) and should follow the specific guidance for each area

General guidance for all working environments

While there is specific guidance for different environments, the following measures (pasted from the .GOV site) are common to all areas and make a good starting point for employers looking to bring people back to work:

  • In every workplace, increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning
  • Businesses and workplaces should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option. Where working from home is not possible, workplaces should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government (keeping people 2m apart wherever possible)
  • Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff. Further mitigating actions include:
    • Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
    • Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible
    • Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
    • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
    • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others)
    • Finally, if people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then you will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead
  • No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment
  • In your assessment you should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The general guidance goes on to state “Employers have a duty to reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures. Employers must work with any other employers or contractors sharing the workplace so that everybody’s health and safety is protected.”

By equal measure, employees have a duty to follow safety procedures to minimise the risk to themselves, colleagues and customers, We suggest that employers emphasize this as part of the return to work process and consider it a disciplinary matter of safety guidelines are not followed adequately.

Useful links

Working safely

The unlockdown process FAQs for individuals and businesses

COVID self-certification notice

HSE working safely guide