‘Covid-secure’: working safely during coronavirus

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4 min read

The Government published its roadmap on 11 May, outlining a plan for a three stage phased reopening of the country.

The roadmap, Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategyexplains that we are entering stage two of that plan, and that businesses not required to close by law should be open and that people unable to work from home should be encouraged to return to work.  

Employers, who have a statutory duty to exercise all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, must now ensure that workplace health and safety arrangements include arrangements that minimise the transmission of coronavirus.

Failure to do so will be in breach of the statutory duty, which is a criminal offence.  

Supporting employers, the Government has published the COVID-19 secure guidelines to assist in this task.  The guidelines consist of eight separate documents, each corresponding to a different workplace environment. Each is reported to have been produced "…in consultation with industry experts to help ensure the various categories of workplaces to which they relate are as safe as possible".  The Government claims the guidelines are based on sound evidence: "…from what has worked elsewhere in the world, and the best available scientific theory."

The eight workplaces for which guidelines have already been published are as follows:  

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

The Government's published Plan suggests that it will base its staggered reopening of additional categories of business on their ability to comply with the COVID-19 secure guidelines. It is likely additional guidelines will follow as the range of workplace environments reopening increases.  

Most businesses operate across a range of workplaces and so will need to refer to multiple guideline documents.  Although the guidelines are detailed, they are still ‘high level’ and so not a 'one-stop' solution. They should form the basis for any safe system of work, but they will not replace the need for an employer to conduct its own assessment of risk or to come up with and implement its own safe system of work tailored to its unique operational circumstances.

For example, the guidelines do not help an employer determine how frequent cleaning should be, or what ‘safe’ arrangements for essential face-to-face working look like;  mechanisms for achieving the stated objectives, such as staggering work hours to reduce employee contact or providing pop-up wash stations to facilitate increased hand washing, are not always mentioned. 

Businesses currently operating or planning to reopen soon must not delay implementing new health and safety arrangements. The Health and Safety Executive has confirmed that it will be carrying out spot checks on workplaces and flagrant disregard of the published guidelines will likely prompt enforcement action.

As regards to Personal Protective Equipment, save for in clinical settings, like a hospital, or a small handful of other roles for which Public Health England advises use of PPE, (for example, first responders and immigration enforcement officers), its use as a tool to minimise transmission of COVID-19 is not recommended by the guidelines, which state:

“Workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19 outside clinical settings or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Unless you are in a situation where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very high, your risk assessment should reflect the fact that the role of PPE in providing additional protection is extremely limited.  However, if your risk assessment does show that PPE is required, then you must provide this PPE free of charge to workers who need it. Any PPE provided must fit properly.”

It is worth noting, though, that certain cleaning tasks will require the availability of certain PPE (see separate published guidelines, on cleaning, here).

HSE have produced guidance to assist with practical controls which employers might introduce and also to assist employers to consult effectively with their workforce. These are available here. We recommend considering these in conjunction with the COVID-19 guidelines.

Any employer wishing to depart from the guidelines will need good reason for doing so and will need to be able to demonstrate that any alternative arrangement is fit for purpose.

If you would like bespoke health and safety advice or would like to discuss anything in the new guidelines please do not hesitate to contact our team of expert regulatory lawyers.

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