Coronavirus: staying alert – returning to work as lockdown changes

As the government starts to change lockdown and encourages people to return to work, employment law and risk experts Emma Swan and David Mayor from Forbes Solicitors look at six key areas employers need to manage to keep COVID-19 compliant.

Emma Swan, head of commercial employment law, comments:

1)     Consult employees on health and safety

“The Government has produced guidance for working safely during COVID-19 for eight different types of workplace from construction sites to contact centres and offices. All eight pieces of the guidance are underpinned by an employer’s duty to consult workers about health and safety. As companies ask people to return to work, it’s important they talk to them about changes in the workplace to stop the spread of COVID-19 and canvas their opinions on how to make the working environment safe for them. 

“Companies are advised to consult with their designated health and safety representative, who is selected by a recognised trade union or, if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by workers. Employers should remember that they cannot decide who the representative is.” 

2)     Make working from home first choice

“Under Government guidance, companies are expected to make every effort to enable people to work from home as the first option. Many businesses will have adapted to remote working since lockdown began but are more likely to have done so through necessity rather than proactive choice. For a whole host of different reasons, these businesses may now be eager to get employees back into offices. However, they must exercise caution. If employees have effectively worked from home during lockdown, it raises questions about how essential it is for them to immediately return to workplaces during the relaxing of lockdown. 

“There is also debate within Government about workers being presented with a legal right to work from home after lockdown. This is still under review and could benefit companies through saving costs on modifying offices to accommodate social distancing.  

“In the meantime, businesses are advised to fully audit the effectiveness of working from home practices and consider these as part of a phased approach to reintroducing employees into the workplace. This will support their risk management practices and compliance with guidance for safe working during the pandemic.” 

David Mayor, a partner specialising in insurance and risk management, comments:

3)     Create a COVID-19 risk management plan

“Irrespective of the type of workplace, managing risk is a part of the Government’s approach to creating working environments which minimise the spreading COVID-19. How risk is identified and managed will vary from sector to sector and companies should consult Government guidance most relevant to their workplace. This can be found on the Gov.UK website.

“By creating a risk management plan, companies will be more effectively able to pinpoint how they are practically implementing mitigating actions, such as two metre social distancing and regular handwashing, as well as how they’ll manage risks specific to their workplace. For example, guidance for offices outlines the need for employers to use screens and barriers to separate people from each other, and to use back-to-back or side-to-side working where possible, instead of face-to-face. The risk management plan could help to satisfy any enquiries from the HSE and local authorities, which will be responsible for enforcing public health legislation and guidance to control public health risks.”

4)     Make risk management comprehensive

“An employer’s obligations to safeguard health and welfare during the pandemic aren’t restricted to working practices and the main working area. They also cover the need for employers to carefully manage social distancing when employees arrive and depart work. Requirements vary according to the type of workplace and companies need to consider practical steps such as phasing the start of the working day to avoid a high number of employees arriving at the same time, limiting how many people travel in company-owned vehicles and perhaps opening up more access points to reduce the congestion of people arriving at work or when they leave.

“Beyond arrival and departure, employers must also consider how employees use common areas like canteens or tea-making areas, how employees practically move around an office, the hosting of visitors and procedures for social distancing during emergency situations like a fire evacuation.” 

5)     Develop a procedure for reporting concerns

“Employees, understandably, may have concerns about returning to workplaces and interacting with people from outside their households. Employers are advised to acknowledge and embrace these concerns by creating a system for workers to ask questions and to also report any instances where they believe there’s a risk of COVID-19 being spread.

“Creating a reporting system isn’t a direct requirement of Government guidance for safe working during the pandemic but could prove effective in helping companies to better address risks and promote understanding amongst employees about how to work safely.”   

Emma Swan, head of commercial employment law, concludes: 

6)     Communicate and train employees on COVID-19 changes

“Employers must share the findings of their COVID-19 risk assessment with their employees. This is stipulated in Government guidance and is designed to help employees stay alert and stay COVID-19 secure. The risk assessment could be displayed in the workplace or posted on a company website and staff directed to it. 

“As well as sharing the risk assessment, employers are advised to train employees on changes to the working environment and processes. While it may seem over-the-top to show people how to maintain two metres distance when moving around the office or how to avoid face-to-face working situations, it’ll help ensure everyone is clear on their responsibilities. It’s also another effective step in helping deliver the Government’s key objective of working safely.”