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As the UK enters into stage 4 of the roadmap on 19 July and legal restrictions on face coverings and social distancing are lifted, the guidance suggests that just as individuals are encouraged to employ a level of personal responsibility, so too should businesses, who ought to err on the side of caution when it comes to staff returning to work.
Health and safety in the workplace has been under the spotlight during the pandemic and since March 2020 we have been advising businesses on operating safely and in accordance with regulations and government guidance. And now, as July 19 dawns upon the UK, businesses are right to carefully consider the new stage 4 guidance issued and ensure their continued compliance with health and safety obligations. In this ebriefing, we have set out the key changes and health and safety considerations for employers outlined in the latest government guidance.
The Government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, but a gradual return is recommended
The lifting of restrictions (including social distancing and face coverings) is likely to see an increase in activity and contact between individuals as many businesses reopen their doors to the public for the first time since March 2020. Likewise, as the mandatory work from home guidance is lifted, employers may be keen for staff to return to the workplace. The guidance states that during this period of high prevalence, the Government expects and recommends a gradual return to the workplace over the summer.
Whilst restrictions are lifted, the general duties of employers to ensure the health and safety of all employees and all those affected by the operations of the business (as prescribed by sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974) remain. It will be important for businesses to be fully prepared for the return to work by properly assessing the risks of Covid-19 to the health and safety of its workforce and all others who might be affected by the operations of the business, and taking appropriate measures to mitigate this.
Mitigating the risk of Covid-19
Businesses will need to consider the different transmissions of the virus and put in place measures to reduce the risk of each of these as part of its risk assessment. For example, to reduce the risk of the virus spreading through:
- aerosols, it is suggested that employers provide adequate ventilation, identify any poorly ventilated spaces and take steps to improve the fresh air flow in these areas, encourage the use of outdoor space where practical, and identify areas of congestion in the workplace and consider if any reasonable steps could be taken to avoid this;
- droplets, employers may seek to encourage the use of face coverings, or put in place measures to reduce contact between people, including using screens to separate people, using back-to-back or side-to-side working instead of face-to-face, and reducing the number of people each person has contact with; and
- contaminated surfaces, employers may advise workers to wash their hands or use hand sanitiser frequently, and ensure surfaces are regularly cleaned.
The risk assessment results should be shared with the workforce, and the Government expects all employers with over 50 workers to publish the results on their website.
Ensure that nobody is discriminated against
Consideration will need to be given to those who are at a higher risk of infection and/or an adverse outcome if infected, including those who are clinically vulnerable and those who have not yet received both doses of the vaccination. Employers will need to be mindful of their responsibilities towards disabled workers and workers who are new mothers or pregnant and must take into account how those with protected characteristics may be impacted by all measures taken. Reasonable adjustments should be considered as part of the risk assessment.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings
PPE should be determined by a risk assessment and should continue to be used if PPE is already being used to protect against non-Covid-19 risks. From 19 July, face coverings will no longer be required by law, however, guidance clearly expects and recommends that people will continue to wear face coverings in crowded, enclosed spaces.
The Prime Minister has emphasised the importance of personal responsibility when choosing to wear a face covering, but although no longer mandatory, the protection offered by face coverings is still endorsed by the guidance. Employers will need to be satisfied that they have taken all reasonably practicable steps to minimise the risk to the health and safety and may therefore choose to encourage wearing face coverings in the workplace, particularly indoor areas where workers will come into contact with others. Again, reasonable adjustments may need to be made for those with disabilities.
Communication is key
Businesses will need to ensure workers understand Covid-19 related safety procedures before their return to the office. A phased return to work is an attractive option to enable clear communication of procedures, training where necessary, and the opportunity for employers to prepare the workspace with appropriate signage and any necessary PPE or equipment.
Priority next steps
The following actions are considered a priority and should factor into plans to manage health and safety risks. More detail is provided in respect of each point in the guidance:
- Complete a suitable and sufficient risk assessment that includes the risk from Covid-19 and share the results with your workforce
- Provide adequate ventilation
- Ensure regular cleaning of common touchpoints in the workplace
- Turn away people with Covid-19 symptoms
- Enable people to check-in at your venue
- Keep workers, contractors and visitors informed of how safety measures are being used
For more information
For further information in relation to any of the above, please contact a member of the regulatory team.
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