Freedom day has been issued and most of the remaining COVID-19 restrictions have been removed in England, leaving businesses in a position to reopen and enjoy a safe return to work.
But while the regulations regarding health and safety have been removed, the risks to health and safety for employees and customers very much remain.
51% of employees are nervous about returning to the workplace, according to a study by Westfield Health, and 66% want more support from their employer in terms of their wellbeing. Businesses need to alleviate these concerns and provide the right level of support to instil confidence.
This will not only make people feel more comfortable returning to the office, but it will also assist with employee retention, by showing staff that the business is committed to their wellbeing.
Employers need to implement a careful return to the workplace that will safeguard their staff and the wellbeing of the general public, which requires consideration of various factors, from the physical environment to how staff interact with one another. These are some of the ways that businesses can implement a safer return to the workplace going forward.
The difference between law and guidance
The first step to providing a seamless return to the workplace is knowing the differences between what’s a legal requirement and what’s simply guidance for your employees. For example, face coverings are no longer a requirement, as per the government’s legislation, but employers still have obligations under health and safety law to enforce measures to protect their staff.
As per the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure safety in the workplace. So, despite government measures being abandoned, there’s still a fundamental duty to manage the COVID risk in whichever ways possible.
Whether it’s providing protective screens between desks, making sure there’s adequate ventilation or increasing cleaning schedules, a healthy workplace always needs to be the priority. Businesses need to stay on top of the latest legislation, while also taking into account the unique demands of the industry that may not be factored into the general legislation.
All the while COVID-19 remains an occupational hazard, employers need to consider the ways that they can keep business premises safe to reduce health and safety risks but also to keep employees comfortable and confident that they can return to work safely.
Review Risk Assessments
How we work has changed indefinitely, and that can make people nervous which can distract your staff. So, in planning a safe return to work, businesses need to take a proactive approach to risk assessments. What may have been in place before might not be relevant anymore, given the new circumstances we’re all dealing with.
So, in order to mitigate any hazards and risks, employers have a responsibility to assess the processes in place and ensure that they’re still appropriate to keep staff safe. There may even be new risks post-lockdown that need to be considered.
Public Health England expects a rise in Legionnaires’ disease, for example, which is a severe form of pneumonia which is caused by inhaling aerosols from a contaminated source and has symptoms including headaches, dry cough, fever and muscle aches.
The reason for the expected increase in cases is because many buildings have been unoccupied for months now, which could have resulted in a build-up of legionella in stagnant water systems.
The government has stated that it expects businesses with more than 50 members of staff to share the results of their risk assessments on their Website, in order to protect staff and visitors as much as possible. So, it should be a priority before teams return to the workplace. Businesses who can identify risks in advance will be better prepared to address issues as they arise.
Increase hygiene protocols
Hygiene is paramount to reducing the spread of infection and germs, so this needs to be reiterated to employees regularly. When returning to the workplace, the premises need to be well-ventilated to keep fresh air flowing through the workspace but there also needs to be an increase in personal hygiene such as all staff washing their hands more regularly.
This might mean making changes to the business premises, such as installing touch-free hand washing stations in bathrooms to minimise the need to touch taps and soap dispensers.
There will also need to be an increase in supplies for staff to use, such as cleaning materials in the kitchens so people can wipe down surfaces before and after they’ve used them, and disinfecting products for shared appliances.
Where staff need to share equipment, there needs to be processes in place to keep these items cleaned and disinfected regularly, as well as minimising how many people are using the equipment.
It can help to have custom signage in place to remind staff of the processes of using such equipment, so they’re reminded to clean it down before and after use. After many months of working remotely, we may need reminders to follow these protocols regularly, which signage on equipment or on the walls can help to achieve.
Adapt to social distancing measures
We can’t simply pick up where we left off – business premises need to be adapted to accommodate the new normal, which means taking social distancing into account and making it as easy as possible for people to work safely while minimising the risk of infection.
While remote working has taken off in popularity, and proven to be a success for many businesses, it’s not possible for all industries. In such cases, employers need to put sufficient measures in place to control the spread of infection. This might mean reorganising the office layout so that you can accommodate social distancing more effectively.
Staggering work hours for staff, as well as implementing a phased return to work, can help with this and makes facilitating social distancing easier. It’s also important that staff avoid hot desking so that workstations aren’t being shared between employees.
Protective screens, readily accessible hand sanitiser and restricting how many staff are in each area at one time can also help to keep your employees safe, while still enabling them to work on-site.
Identify potentially infectious employees
There needs to be a strict process in place for people displaying symptoms or who could be carrying the virus. These processes need to be mandatory in order for them to be fully effective at keeping everyone healthy.
The most common way that businesses are keeping the risk of virus-carrying staff from entering the workplace is by checking temperatures before employees come into work – a simple but highly effective way to check if staff are healthy enough to be working that takes minutes to complete.
Staff should also be encouraged to take at-home COVID tests regularly to ensure they’re not ill before coming into work. Businesses can supply these tests so that employees always have regular access to free tests.
Businesses should also have QR track and trace codes around the office, so that staff can check in before the enter the building or premises, which will help identify anyone who has been in contact with a potentially infected person so that they can self-isolate until they’re safe to return to work.
Continue to use PPE for a safe return to work
Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, should be provided by employers if the risk assessment deems it necessary. It can also help to minimise the spread of the virus if businesses advise staff to continue wearing face coverings. Face masks are no longer a requirement, but they can help to keep staff safe.
But if the use of face coverings puts staff at additional risk, such as in instances where it could be caught on machinery or snagged on equipment, then this needs to be taken into account.
Masks should not be used as a catch-all replacement in place of all other measures to control the spread of infection, however. Employees still need to wash their hands regularly, use hand sanitiser throughout the day and keep their distance from one another as much as possible.
Consult with employees
There’s a lot of uncertainty still for employees, and the likelihood is that many members of your team are very apprehensive about giving up the safety of remote working to return to the office.
In order to reduce that uncertainty and provide peace of mind, while also avoiding disputes, employers should consult with their staff and ask them what they can do to instil confidence.
Having talks with employees also provides an opportunity to reiterate processes that will be in place for the foreseeable future, providing them with transparent information about how the business will operate going forward.
If there are union safety representatives associated with the business, they should be involved with these talks so they can highlight any issues that have been missed. Consulting with safety representatives will ensure consistent messaging across the business and will help to cement the company’s commitment to implementing safety measures.
The worst of the pandemic may be over, but we’re not safe from the threat of infection entirely yet. COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of health and safety measures in the workplace, and employers need to appreciate the risks that their employees are facing when they return to work.
None of us can expect everything to return to normal overnight – there’s still a long way to go and it could be months ahead before working returns to normality completely.
Risk management doesn’t have to be a complex process – in planning ahead and considering the unique demands of your business or industry, you can pre-empt any hazards that your staff will face and mitigate them before they become a problem.
We all have a responsibility to adhere to guidelines to keep ourselves and those around us safe, and the workplace is one area where a group effort is required for success.
About the Author
Aaron James is a freelance writer from Sussex working in a range of business verticals from eCommerce to Staffing and HR. As well as business writing Aaron also works on content in other areas including mental health, science and marketing. When he isn’t writing Aaron spends his time trying to find a good waves to ride in the South of England…which isn’t very easy!