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COVID-19: returning to the workplace


With the lifting of virtually all restrictions relating to COVID-19, the way is open for workplaces to resume normal service, or as close to normal as can be achieved.


However, COVID hasn’t gone away; the risk may have decreased for many of us but there is still a need to take precautions.


So, what do employers need to remember as their workforce walks back through the front door?

Risk assessment


As with so many risks to health, the first thing to do when planning a return to the workplace is carry out a risk assessment. This is a process whereby the risks to employees and others are identified, assessed, control measures devised and implemented, findings recorded and the control measures regularly reviewed to take into account changes to work processes, amongst other things.


Employers will need to identify and assess the risks of COVID-19 to employees, visitors and contractors, all of whom will likely have different risks, depending on how much time they spend in the workplace and the degree of contact they have with each other. Once those risks have been identified and assessed – including the different vectors of spread for the virus, the employer needs to consider what measures might be taken to control the risks, thereby reducing the risk of transmission.


Depending on the size of the organisation and the depth of the COVID risk assessment, it can either be included in the general workplace risk assessment or be issued as a standalone document. Either way, it needs to be readily accessible in case either employees or HSE inspectors need to see it.


Ventilation


One thing we did find out during the pandemic was the demonstrable benefit of fresh air in reducing the likelihood of viral transmission. Ensuring a supply of fresh air will be an important aspect of workplaces in the future, rather than recycled air conditioning, as has been the case hitherto. This can be achieved by keeping windows and doors open, using fans and ducts or reconfiguring air conditioning systems so that their intake is 100% fresh outside air. If it’s possible, and if the weather permits, using outdoor spaces rather than indoor should be encouraged, although this may not be practicable for every workplace.


Cleaning


To prevent the spread of infection generally, and COVID-19 in particular, workplaces will need to pay a lot more attention to cleaning than has previously been the case. Surfaces that get handled or touched often during the day – keyboards, kettles, door handles, work surfaces - should be cleaned as they are used. The use of hand sanitiser, something that we’ve all become used to during the pandemic, is a habit well worth continuing with, and employee should be reminded about this with the use of staff bulletins, noticeboards and the provision of sanitiser at regular locations in the workplace.

Social distancing


The lifting of restrictions includes social distancing, although the results of a risk assessment may point to certain measures that will require reducing the amount of direct contact employees have when in the workplace. If this is the case, then there are certain measures that can be taken, including:

  • Designating seats for individual employees, rather than allowing people to sit where they choose

  • If there is space sufficient to do so, prioritising back-to-back or side by side working, rather than face to face will help to reduce the risk.

  • Similarly, clear screens or barriers can perform a similar function while enabling employees to see their colleagues and feel less isolated.

Naturally, employers need to remember to take into account any reasonable adjustments that are needed for disabled employees.


PPE and face coverings


If there is one thing that for many people sums up the pandemic, it is the face mask. However, under health and safety regulations, they are not counted as personal protective equipment (PPE) as they don’t provide protection from risks faced in the working environment, for example dust or vapours. Nor, currently, are they required by law.


However, it has been recommended in government guidance that people in crowded and/or enclosed settings continue to use them, particularly if they will be mixing with people who they don’t normally meet.


Staff, customers and other visitors to site, such as contractors can be encouraged to wear face coverings, but employers need to bear in mind several issues:


  • The approach taken to face coverings in the workplace needs to take into account both health and safety regulations and equality legislation

  • The choice not to wear face coverings is also the choice to wear them, even if nobody else is. An employee who wants to wear a face covering may feel under pressure not to do so if nobody else is doing so and if their choice is queried, even innocently, so the employer needs to be ready to support their workforce, whatever they choose.


Requiring staff to wear face coverings


If a risk assessment has been carried out and it has pointed to the need to wear face coverings as critical to the continued operation of the business, then the employer can implement a policy that requires all employees to wear them. However, note should be taken of those employees who can’t wear such face coverings because of medical reasons or due to a disability that is covered by Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010. A recent Employment Tribunal case has ruled on a case of unfavourable treatment based on disability as the claimant had been ruled to be a disabled person by reason of the mental impairment of anxiety/panic attacks when having their face covered.


Employers will need to tread carefully here, as the wearing of face masks is a relatively new phenomenon and the interaction with disability law is an evolving area, currently being decided on a case-by-case basis.


Employees with COVID-19 symptoms


Although it has been announced that there is no longer a legal requirement for a person to self-isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 or show symptoms, employers may nevertheless choose to provide guidance on what their workforce should do, in order to be considerate towards other employees and avoid passing the virus on. Public Health England and the NHS say:


“While you’re no longer required by law to self-isolate if you have COVID-19, you should still stay at home and avoid contact with other people. This helps reduce the risk of passing COVID-19 on to others”


Communication and training


The best safety measures will be ineffective if nobody knows about them. Neither will they reassure those who visit the workplace. That’s why it’s important to take steps to keep both employees and visitors to the workplace up to date on what is being done to keep them safe and remind them about what they need to do in order to ensure that the safety measures work as they are intended to do. It’s a good idea to enlist the support and assistance of the trade union or employee representatives, but if there isn’t one, then a direct approach to employees is the best way to proceed.


Long COVID


For many people, COVID-19 is not a disease from which they completely recover. The phenomenon of Long COVID is a relatively new one but it is real and has left many with debilitating effects, which can fulfil many of the criteria listed in Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010 for disability. This, of course, means that employers will be considering what they can do to support employees with the symptoms of Long COVID. In most cases, a sympathetic approach will be needed, with the adjustments tailored to the symptoms, as it has been shown that Long COVID presents in a variety of different ways and what might work for one employee may not for another one.