Ready or not, here it comes.
For many of us, the prospect of powering our businesses and workplaces back up, after a period that’s left its fair share of cashflow scars, diminished staff numbers and added health and safety logistical and operational complexities, is a worrying one.
And it’s not surprising, given what we’ve all just experienced, that it also feels overwhelming and confusing.
New ‘back to work’ government guidance
Here, we summarise and keep updated the key headlines of the advice and guidance provided by the government and our Farillio experts – who, as always, are helping us on a daily basis to make sense of everything and to translate it into real actions for you.
You’ll find here, in the coming weeks, more and more of their checklists, recommended templates, video advice and commentary on how to get going again… or if you’ve been operating during the Covid-19 lockdown period, how to scale back up, or to adapt back to the business plan you had before – at least as far as workplace safety is concerned.
The government’s latest guidance on safely bringing staff back into the workplace after lockdown is here. We can expect updates to this health and safety guidance to continue on a regular basis as the government adjusts its plans for the speed and extent of the measures that it’s prepared to approve.
The guidance is pretty high level and will need careful implementation so that the real details of what’s set out can be ticked off by employers, who it makes clear will be expected to show their risk assessment actions, and records of them, to their staff. Those with 50 or more employees will also be obliged to publish those risk assessment outcomes on their websites and to keep these assessments up to date.
A short downloadable notice is included with this new guidance, which employers are required to display to show their employees, customers and other visitors to their workplace that they've followed the guidance.
In summary, while many questions remain outstanding and challenging, the government’s guidance currently provides that we should:
1. Keep staff working from home where this is feasible
Those workplaces that are allowed to be open and whose employees can't work from home should prepare for employees to return to work. (There's more sector-specific guidance for employers permitted to be open or re-opening below.)
2. Specific Covid-19 risk assessments must be carried out by employers, regularly revisited and updated (as needed)
These assessments should be done in consultation with staff and, if relevant, with trade unions. If employees feel unsafe, they’re encouraged to tell their employer, or (if this doesn't yield a response that the employee feels is satisfactory), their trade union reps or the Health and Safety Executive.
Those with 50 or more employees are required to publish their risk assessment outcome, and updates, on their websites. Businesses can use the checklist attached later on in this guide to help them to conduct these assessments – and Lighthouse can assist with any questions or concerns too
3. Social distancing must be reinforced in the workplace
This potentially has very significant implications for employers since the government has confirmed that employers will be expected to bear the costs of rapidly redesigning workspaces to maintain 2-metres social distancing between individuals, wherever possible; for example, by staggering work start and end times, providing for bike/parking arrangements so staff don’t need to use crowded public transport, creating one-way walk-throughs to avoid corridor congestions and over-crowding of them, opening more entrances and exits, and changing workstation and seating layouts. They may also need to provide staff with protective attire or equipment.
4. Cease risky business activities or take effective mitigation actions where these activities are business critical
Where social distancing guidelines can't be fully implemented, businesses are expected to consider whether that activity is business critical or can be ceased to reduce the risk of virus transmission to and between staff.
If a risk-carrying activity genuinely can't be avoided for the business to continue to operate, the guidance says that employers are expected to take all the mitigation actions possible to reduce the risks, which could mean, for example, putting in place barriers in shared spaces to shield colleagues from each other, putting staff on shifts to reduce the numbers of personnel in one space at any one time, ensuring that colleagues aren't seated facing each other, providing protective attire, and puting in place all the other measures covered in this guidance
5. Reinforce cleaning and hygiene controls
Handwashing facilities, adequate and strategically placed hand sanitisers for staff, and rigorous, frequent cleaning of workplaces, especially common parts and high-contact objects like internal doors, handles, rails, keypads, non-contactless card payment equipment, etc., remain essential.
Enforcement of the guidance and consequences of breaching it
The government has meanwhile made clear that the HSE and local authorities will be conducting spot checks and relying on (as well as encouraging) employees who have not been able to get to what they consider is a satisfactory safety position with their employer, to report that employer.
The HSE has confirmed that it will take enforcement action, within its normal powers to do so, where employers haven't complied with their health and safety obligations to keep staff safe at work. Covid-19 doesn't change the applicability or enforceability of these powers.
Inspectors can issue orders to remedy breaches, they can issue notices prohibiting certain activities unless and until safety breaches are remedied and they can call on the enforcement and criminal prosecution powers of the courts, in the most extreme cases.
How this guidance will be evaluated and/or ‘enforced’ and what the detail of it really means, are among the questions that we explored with our usual Health and Safety experts, Lighthouse Risk Services, on-screen below...
Jump straight to the answers you need...
- 0:00 - Introduction to getting the workplace back into action.
- 1:05 - What are the main concerns when reopening premises after a long period of non-operation?
- 9:09 - What concerns has the easing of lockdown and scaling up of capacity raised for businesses who have been able to keep going?
- 10:32 - How might changing the way we trade affect our health and safety planning and compliance?
- 18:34 - Getting back-to-work ready, what are the key elements?
- 24:29 - What are some industry-specific examples of back-to-work health and safety concerns?
- 27:14 - What can employers do to get staff to the workplace safely?
- 32:32 - How should employers handle self-certification/checks when staff come in each day?
- 35:40 - PPE – Who should be wearing masks, visors, gloves etc.?
- 37:38 - How are businesses coping with the impact of Covid-19?
- 43:37 - How can we handle the mental wellbeing of our workforce in a Covid-19 world?
Specific and more detailed sectoral guidance on returning to work arrangements
In addition to the above guidance, 8 other government guides have been published that contain guidance (not statutory rules) that employers are encouraged to follow when they’re complying with their health and safety obligations.
These guides cover 8 different workplace settings that are allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites to factories and takeaways, where staff can't work from home.
The government’s made it clear that businesses are expected to read and ensure they can operate according to them, even if that means changing, potentially quite significantly, how they operate going forward compared with how they managed their workforce and workplace pre-Covid-19 and the lockdown.
You can find and access these specific detailed guidelines here:
Expectations, managing staff anxiety and demonstrating responsible compliance
Getting back to work is going to be an anxious time for many. And costly for employers. It’s also going to be an evolving situation.
Taking staff anxiety seriously, to manage risks
Staff will be anxious. And just like employees, customers, suppliers, partners, investors, etc., will be looking for confidence. Employers will be judged by how they handle the journey back to work and their actions will either inflame or mitigate the risks of enforcement activity and reputational damage.
Any assumption by businesses that the health and safety guidance being issued is avoidable, or needn’t be taken seriously, is a dangerous one. Any lack of commitment to implementing the guidance would be very ill-advised. It remains a criminal offence for employers not to keep their staff safe. Covid-19 is squarely within the existing staff safety legal obligations. The government’s guidance merely gives helpful flavour to the current health and safety law.
The HSE’s inspectors will spot-check; staff will complain if they don't feel secure – just as they both have where businesses have continued to operate during Covid-19.
And the reputation damage of being labelled an employer that doesn't keep its employees safe may be something a business may struggle to ever recover from.
Training staff on the control measures and enforcing individual compliance
Employers must train staff on the health and safety control measures that they put in place in response to the Covid-secure guidelines and their health and safety obligations. In addition, employers will need to keep a close eye on staff behaviour and how well they're complying with the training.
Lighthouse strongly recommend that employers send all staff an email/ask managers to announce to all staff that: [recommended example wording]
‘We’ve undertaken a Covid-19 health and safety risk assessment across our business and we will continue to keep the way that we’re working and the measures that we’re taking under close and careful review.
You’ll see our Covid-19 workplace poster displayed throughout our premises – pleasure ensure you familiarise yourselves with it. [You can find the results of our latest Covid-19 workplace risk assessment [specific location].]
Everyone is expected to comply with the Covid-Secure rules that the business has put in place. These rules can be found [specify location].
If you have any questions or concerns about the rules or about someone’s behaviour and any risks arising from it, we encourage and expect you to raise them as soon as possible with your managers – or another senior member of staff if your normal manager is not immediately available.
It is a very serious responsibility that we all have to keep each other safe. Those who don’t comply with the safety rules will be spoken to according to our business’ disciplinary policy.’
Adequacy (and costs) of existing workplaces vs other options
Some employers may choose to relinquish existing workplaces (if they have not already done so), especially those premises that present significantly costly adaption requirements, and/or that can't accommodate the government guidance and still enable a business to achieve a critical level of productivity that can assure revenue.
Business tenants that can afford to do so may well choose to continue remote working arrangements for the time being and save the costs, the distractions (and their related impact on productivity and revenue) and the risks of resuming workplace-based operations.
Others who can afford to do so, and have the contractual rights to do so, are using recent events to consider bringing their existing rental relationships to a close; benefitting instead from what’s potentially becoming a renter’s market to find somewhere else more suitable.
However, there may be good opportunities for landlords of modern buildings that can more easily provide the types of environment that businesses still needing a workplace base are going to need this year, at the very least. They may be able to create some enticing incentives for those businesses to leave current, not-fit-for-Covid-secure-purpose premises.
It’s evolving, and businesses will need to keep reviewing and adapting
The government’s made clear that it’s expecting employers to keep re-assessing the adequacy of their health and safety measures to address Covid-19 risks and ensure safe workplaces for staff and others who come on to their sites.
Employees know this and, as guidance and employer display poster obligations change, they will be the first to comment and complain if they feel they’re being put at risk.
Get a good Covid-19 risk assessment approach in place – it’s worth investing in getting the help to support you in doing this; then the subsequent and necessary frequent re-evaluations of your Covid-secure compliance will be easier and far less costly.
Monitor what arrangements are working and be prepared to modify them where they are no longer as effective as they initially were. As more staff return to workplaces and these become more crowded and harder to maintain, plans and agreed modes of operation will need to change too.