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COVID-19 Secure Workplace Guidance

View profile for Maureen Cawthorn
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To support businesses and employees in re-opening workspaces and returning to work, the Government has now published a series of guides to making workplaces ‘COVID secure’.

Eight sector-specific guides have been produced. These are for:

  • construction and other outdoor work
  • factories, plants and warehouses
  • labs and research facilities
  • offices and contact centres
  • employees performing work in other people’s homes
  • restaurants offering takeaway and delivery
  • shops and branches
  • employees working in or from vehicles (including couriers or mobile workers).

The guides all contain tailored best-practice advice for each of these sectors and share common core content. In particular, the guides advise employers how to maintain social distancing and suggest ‘mitigating actions’ which could be taken to reduce risks where social distancing isn’t possible or practical. These include:

  • staggering start, finish and break times
  • minimising face to face attendance at meetings
  • controlling access to common areas such as canteens
  • using ‘fixed’ teams to minimise social mixing

The guides represent a suggested safety framework and the Government has stressed that every business will need to “translate this into specific actions it needs to take, depending on the nature of their business, including the size and type of business, and how it is organised, operated, managed and regulated”. 

COVID-19 risk assessments

All the guides advise employers to undertake a specific COVID-19 risk assessment in conjunction with their workers and, if applicable, unions. This should be shared with employees and the Government expects organisations with over 50 staff to publish it on their website.

Employees with protected characteristics

The guides include a reminder for employers to be mindful of their responsibilities to employees with protected characteristics. Disabled employees might need reasonable adjustments which go beyond the arrangements in place for the rest of the workforce.

Expectant mothers

Expectant mothers should be subject to a tailored risk-assessment and are entitled to be suspended with pay if they cannot be kept safe at work.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

The guides suggest employers should not encourage the ‘precautionary’ use of additional PPE outside specific high-risk settings. Instead, employers are encouraged to focus on providing extra protections that are considered genuinely helpful, appropriate and based on a risk assessment.

The guides suggest that, as employers work through the health and safety hierarchy of controls, PPE should feature far down the list. The importance and effectiveness of PPE in the fight against COVID-19 is perhaps, therefore, in question.

Guidance or legislation?

It is worth noting that this Government guidance is not legislation; nor is it an Approved Code of Practice, both of which have more standing when workplace compliance is being considered. However, whilst following it is not compulsory, to not do so would require robust, written reasoning. 

Are the guidelines enforceable?

Yes. The HSE has recently received a 10% cash injection from central Government to support “COVID Secure spot inspections”. They may  challenge businesses to prove compliance against the guidance and can use Improvement Notices (or even Prohibition Notices) to demand changes or temporarily close down work places in the event of non-compliance. 

Many employers will need to make temporary changes to working practices to ensure their duty of care to staff is fully discharged and that employees recognise it is safe for them to return to work.

The guides also state that “workers should not be forced into an unsafe workplace”. This point is debatable, however, the emphasis on tailored risk assessments are reliable health and safety procedures with which employers are familiar.

For expert advice on all employment law issues contact Maureen Cawthorn at our Halifax office on 01422 339600.

Read the full Working Safely during coronavirus’ guidance