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returning to work

Concerned Returners

Jun 3rd, 2020

Kate Hindmarch, Consultant Solicitor

As we emerge from lockdown, many employees will be concerned about returning to the office and the potential risks that accompany it. Employers up and down the country are considering how they can make their offices COVID-secure both from a safety point of view and a staff-management perspective. 

On 11 May 2020, the UK Government published “Our Plan to Rebuild: the UK Government’s COVID-19 strategy”.

They also published the new COVID-19 Secure Guidelines. These guidelines set out best practice for employers, employees and the self-employed as to how to work safely. The eight sets of guidelines cover different types of work, including: construction; factories, plants and warehouses; and offices and contact centres.

Although not a set of mandatory safety measures to be put in place before workers can return to work, employers should follow them to fit into their workplace context. This is particularly the case give that many workers returning to work for the first time since lockdown may have worries and concerns. Some may even refuse to return to work due to COVID-19 fears.  

Employers will need to show patience and have extensive dialogue with their employees to reassure them of measures taken. They should avoid unreasonably pressuring someone to go to work and unreasonably disciplining someone for not going to work.

There are a number of important steps that employers should take.

Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment

The guidelines emphasis the need to for employers to take the health and safety of their workers seriously.  A risk assessment should be carried out.  Worker should be consulted as part of this risk assessment, via trade unions, employee representatives or the workforce directly (although the latter may be difficult depending on the size of the workforce).  The results of any risk assessment should be shared with the workforce (and published on the website where the business employs more that 50 people) and a certificate (a template of which is included in the Guidelines) should be published in the workplace.

Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures

Increasing levels of handwashing and surface cleaning is recommended as a key preventative measure to be taken.  Workspaces and equipment should be cleaned between uses, and high-touch items like printers avoided where possible. 

Help people to work from home

Employers should permit working from home wherever possible by:

  • Ensuring workers have the right equipment
  • Including them in all necessary communications
  • Looking after their physical and mental wellbeing

Maintain 2m social distancing, where possible

Where workers must attend the workplace, employers should make every reasonable effort to comply with social distancing guidelines.  This includes workspaces and desks, exits and entrances, canteens and break rooms. Steps to ensure social distancing might include:

  • Reviewing layouts to allow people to work further apart
  • Using floor tape to mark out distances
  • Avoiding “hot-desking” where possible
  • Using screens or side-to-side / back-to-back work arrangements.

Additional management of transmission risk

Employers should consider staggering arrival and departure times, encourage cycling to work, walking or running to work, and implement one-way systems.  Hygiene steps (such as hand sanitizer stations) should be implemented.  Use of stairs encouraged rather than lifts.

Here are five steps employers should take:

1.    Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, involving your employees and sharing the results with them, as well as publishing a certificent in the workplace.
2.    Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygeine procedures, particularly for common areas like canteens and high touch items like printers.
3.    Help people continue working from home, ensuring they have the right equipment and are included in all communications.
4.    Maintain social distancing, paying particular attention to desks, exits and entrances, canteens and break rooms.

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Kate Hindmarch

Consultant Solicitor

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