The easing of lockdown restrictions in early summer brought hope that businesses could get back to some kind of “normal”.

Many were putting in place return-to-work plans and some had already been back up and running, albeit with restrictions.

The “new” normal is now bringing local lockdowns to the fore with Glasgow and surrounding areas the latest to experience reintroduction of measures. At the moment those are largely confined to personal social interaction inside, but as Aberdeen recently experienced that could include businesses.

It is clear that risks associated with coronavirus remain and businesses must adapt, again, and be prepared, again.

With government guidance ever-changing, together with local variations on restrictions and prevalence of the virus, developing a COVID secure work plan can seem daunting.

COVID is a public health emergency. However, in the workplace, risks associated with COVID should be treated like any other risk that affects health and safety and which needs to be managed and controlled. The COVID public health regulations sit alongside and in addition to the existing health and safety framework in the UK, with which all employers should already be familiar and compliant.

We have helped clients navigate the pandemic, through lockdown and now returning to and working through COVID.

Here we highlight ten key health and safety issues you should be thinking about:

  1. WORKPLACE RISK ASSESSMENT – this will be the foundation of your plan and will allow you to identify the hazards which could create the risk of transmission, who will be affected and how and what control measures are needed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus to employees and others in the workplace. The majority of employers will have conducted a COVID risk assessment already. The Health and Safety Executive has published a toolkit on how to carry out a workplace risk assessment. Even if you have carried out a risk assessment, remember to regularly review and update it – the situation is changing all the time and your risk assessment needs to reflect current understanding of the virus and risks.
  2. INDIVIDUAL RISK ASSESSMENT - you should already have a separate risk assessment for any vulnerable workers, but you will want to review that to take account of the new risks which COVID presents. If you do not have one, you should do one now if you have anybody in your workforce who may be particularly vulnerable. This will apply to workers who have been shielding, those who are returning from working from home or anybody who has a particular concern about their vulnerability in contracting COVID. The Scottish Government published a toolkit at the end of July, updated on 6 August, to assist businesses to carry out such an assessment and can be found here.
  3. CONSULT YOUR WORKFORCE - There is a legal requirement to consult your workforce and you should engage your employees at an early stage to ensure understanding about your plans, and they should have an opportunity to give feedback. Your employees should also be given training on any new polices and procedures you introduce. Keeping everyone updated on actions taken to reduce risks of exposure to COVID in the workplace is good practice and will go a long way in determining the long-term success of any return to work plan.
  4. GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE - The current default is work from home where possible – in Scotland this is still the default position, at least while Scotland remains in Phase 3 of the roadmap out of lockdown. Even when offices do re-open, the default could still be work from home where possible. If you are a business that operates across the UK you could find different approaches being required. If you have not had a Homeworking Policy or Flexible Working Plan – now is the time to implement one.
  5. THE WORKING ENVIRONMENT – You must develop cleaning and hygiene procedures, maintain social distancing and manage transmission risks. This should all be informed by your risk assessment. You may want to consider staggering start and stop times to reduce strain on the transport network and avoid crowds at busy times into and out of your premises. Splitting your workforce into groups, so they are not all in the workplace at once, back-to-back working (literally), floor markings as a reminder to socially distance, a “one in one out” rule in relation to toilet facilities, restricting access to communal areas and provision of hand sanitising stations are just some of the controls which you may wish to implement to reduce the spread of infection. Plastic screens and automatic doors are becoming commonplace.
  6. PPE - Does your workforce need PPE? That is Personal Protective Equipment – different from face coverings and is governed by specific regulations. The rush to buy surgical masks and other PPE led to a shortage in supply in the NHS and medical profession generally, which in turn led to less suitable products being placed on the market. Are you still able to source PPE from your regular supplier? Has there been a change? If you do identify a need for PPE, ensure that it complies with the necessary standards and that it provides the required level of protection.
  7. WORKING FROM HOME - out of sight should not be out of mind for employees who want to continue working from home. WFH amounts to a significant change to an employee’s working environment requiring a risk assessment, reviewed at least annually. The aim of the risk assessment is to highlight areas of concern – measures may require resources and some may not be practicable or viable. Is your employee’s working environment at home suitable, do they have an appropriate workstation, and is there a way of ensuring that their mental health, as well as their physical health, is being monitored? Are they being kept up to date and able to raise any concerns they have? Does somebody check in with them regularly? Stress at work and mental health issues in the workplace are recognised risk areas and need taking into account.
  8. MONITOR - keep up to date with any changes to government or local authority guidance, and remember that there may be local variations in place. Any changes to guidance or local prevalence of the virus should prompt you to revisit your risk assessment and return to work plans.
  9. UPDATE POLICIES - in particular your accident and disease reporting polices – transmission, or possible transmission, of COVID in the workplace is now reportable under RIDDOR (the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013). Consider updating your reporting policies to reflect this and ensure those with a responsibility for reporting know about the changes. Failure to report is a criminal offence.
  10. BREACHES - remember that breach of your health and safety duties is a criminal offence. Failure to adequately assess the risks, or put in place appropriate measures to control those risks, could mean that you find yourself subject to an HSE or local authority investigation, leading to enforcement action or even prosecution. Even if no actual harm has been caused, the fact a risk of transmission was created is enough to amount to a breach under UK health and safety law. Being prepared and in a position to demonstrate that you had reasonable measures in place is your only line of defence. At the start of the pandemic, everyone rushed to dust off Flu and Pandemic Policies and Business Contingency Plans. Consider having an Outbreak Plan to deal with any instances of infection, including recognising when to get legal support.

If you need advice on your plans for working through COVID please get in touch with our specialist health, safety and corporate crime team.

We can help review risk assessments or return to work plans, answer any questions from testing to tracing to face masks and provide crisis response support if required.