‘COVID-secure’ workplaces – what are they and how will they be regulated?
As restrictions start to be lifted and many begin to return to work, the phrase ‘COVID-secure’ workplace has been used a lot. But what defines a COVID-secure workplace and how will it be regulated?
Says Kate Gardner, Health and Safety Consultant with International Workplace:
“Making a workplace COVID-secure is a shared responsibility for everyone, including building owners, building managers and occupiers. For many within the FM sector, making workplaces safe started with reviewing how many staff worked in the space before the lockdown was implemented and then working out how many staff can now occupy the space and continue to observe social distancing guidelines. Key considerations here are around minimising contact within workstations, breakout areas, meeting rooms and kitchen or canteen spaces.
“WIFM, The British Safety Council, CIPD, CIBSE, RICS, HSE, IOSH and many of the larger FM employers such as MITIE have all released guidance on what companies should be doing to ensure a COVID-safe workplace. Having read most of them, they all broadly agree that communication with staff is a key consideration. While it’s very possible to implement physical changes such as screens, floor markings, one way systems, informtion signs and increased cleaning regimes, it remains everyone’s responsibility to following the government guidance – wash hands regularly, don’t touch your face, keep socially distanced and wear a face covering when using public transport or in public spaces where social distancing is not possible.”
What is reasonable?
Says Dewi Ap-Thomas, Partner and Head of Regulatory at national law firm Weightmans LLP:
“Government guidance requires businesses to do ‘all that is reasonably practicable’ in preparing their workspaces for staff – so anything that can be done, should be done – within reason. The law does not require businesses to close or implement measures that would be financially devastating and compromise the viability of the business itself.”
“Supermarkets took an early lead on helping the public to consider what reasonable may need to look like in our workplaces by limiting the numbers of people in stores to allow for social distancing, providing clear guidance to shoppers before they enter stores, providing hand sanitiser and sanitising trollies between customer use, using floor markings and one-way systems and providing screens between checkout staff and shoppers.”
“‘Reasonable’ will involve implementing both physical and behavioural controls and includes ensuring that everyone understands why it’s important to follow the various protocols that the ‘new normal’ will introduce. Clear, unambiguous information, consistently applied, will be key to ensuring our workplaces are safe spaces to work. Taking appropriate and proportionate measures to ensure buildings can be used in a safe and secure way is vital. Communication and cooperation between everyone is essential to make sure that the right programme of control measures are implemented at the right time. People may well need to be reminded about the new protocols in workplaces, so we need to be mindful of how we coach people to make these new ways of working automatic habits.
“While talking to a number of our clients and other FM colleagues, they have spoken about introducing split shifts and lengthening the working day. This will enable them to continue to reduce the number of employees on site at any one time, which will enable them to implement social distancing effectively by reducing the number of people employees come into contact with. There has been an increase in the use of screens at reception areas to provide an additional level of physical protection rather than relying on face masks or face shields.
“For many, the use of technology to allow for secure access into buildings is normal and some organisations are looking at the addition of automatic door opening to reduce the need to physically touch doors. For others, the approach is more low-tech and involves increased touch-point cleaning and encouraging the use of hand sanitiser at points of entry.”
“The nature of COVID-19 is that we can never guarantee a risk-free environment; however, we should all be aiming for as low a risk as possible. Guidance has changed repeatedly as we gather more information about COVID-19 and how it is spread, and as this changes, so should your risk assessments. Regular, date-stamped reviews are crucial to ensure you are as compliant as you possibly can be.”
How will COVID-secure workplaces be regulated?
“The Health and Safety Executive has been granted additional funding in order to closely regulate and monitor workplace responses to COVID-19,” advises Dewi Ap-Thomas.
“At the moment, the scale of the task is so vast that inspections are mostly limited to desktop exercises, rather than site visits – even with the additional funding. Whether due to political and public pressure, or simply due to the need to set an example, we could see a great deal of COVID-related enforcement action in the coming months, even as far as prosecutions.
“It is also important to remember that the HSE does not need to prove the presence of COVID-19 in the workplace – the law requires consideration on risk of harm, rather than actual harm. Even if a business records no cases of infection, if it is not seen to implement measures to honour greater hygiene and social distancing, it may be in breach of the law and enforcement action could be taken against them.”
“Those targeted higher risk industries are more likely to receive a visit where COVID-19 control measures may be considered in light of the total risk profile presented. I think a more likely scenario is that an employee who has concerns that a company is not operating a COVID-secure workplace will contact the local EHO at their local council.”
What the law says
“Viruses have never been recognised as a legal risk – they are considered a hazard in the workplace, rather than a workplace hazard,” says Ap-Thomas.
“Despite the fact that viruses have been largely excluded from workplace risk assessments in the past, the law – particularly the Health and Safety at Work Act 1964 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – is flexible enough to capture COVID-19 and the business community’s response to it. Therefore, all employers and duty holders should remember that they have a legal obligation to reduce risk, or they may face the consequences, both financially and reputationally.
“As we learn more about COVID-19, the expectation to do more will increase, and the sympathy for those who haven’t yet complied will decline. Look to other workplaces for examples of best practice, speak to your employees and their workplace representatives, and seek legal advice to ensure we can all successfully recover from the pandemic as quickly and as safely as possible.”