Staying safe at work in the Covid era

We are once more in the middle of a whirlwind of ever-changing government advice about Covid. On 19th July, only days from now, workplaces can re-open normally – in theory at least. The rising Covid infection rates in the UK mean that there is a lot of anxiety about the re-opening. Employers have decisions to make about how to best serve their business and customers whilst looking after employee welfare.

The Council for Work and Health issued new guidance to employers on 8th July. This followed the Government announcement that they intend to remove all legal restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 in England from 19 July 2021. The main recommendation is for employers to conduct a risk assessment of their workplace. The aim should be to review all known hazards that could cause harm to employees. They list the following hazards to consider in particular:

Biological hazards

Covid-19 is a very real biological hazard that could spread in the workplace. The new variants appear to be each more contagious than the last. The risk from infection increases for employees in vulnerable groups. Factors that increase the risks include age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, and health conditions. When these factors are combined the danger increases further.

Psychological hazards

People who have been working from home may be anxious about going back into the workplace. Public facing roles can also cause anxiety because of the increased risk of exposure to Covid.

Consult your employees

When completing the risk assessment, it is important for employers to consult with employees. There will be risks that are obvious to the employer but also those they may not have thought of. Employees should be able to give their views on what they feel comfortable with. The definition of a safe workplace should be decided jointly and not dictated top-down as this can aggravate the anxiety felt by employees.

Once you have identified the risks, consider reducing by the following steps put forward by the Council for Work and Health:

1. Elimination

Stop an activity that is not considered essential if there are associated risks

2. Substitution

Replacing an activity with another may reduce the risk. e.g. home working. It is important to note that substitution can create another risk, and there are mental health implications that have been seen through isolation over this last year or so. There are also physical hazards, and we have seen significant numbers of people who have work-related upper limb disorder due to unsuitable display screen equipment workstation setup at home.

3. Engineering controls

These are ways to design out risk, or to use physical means to separate people from source of the risk. This will also include ventilation, fresh air being important to reducing the amount of virus that is in the air that people breathe in workplaces.

4. Administrative controls

These include making space between people, and although the Government is likely to remove the legal requirement for social distancing, employers may consider whether it is necessary to have all employees within the office at one time. Keeping occupancy in the workplace below pre-pandemic levels will reduce the risk of transmission, and so reduce the likelihood of employees being infected in their work, or when commuting to and from work.

5. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

With the legal requirement to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport likely to be ending, businesses can still decide whether their employees should still wear masks or other PPE in the workplace. They also may require those visiting the premises wear to face coverings where risk assessment and control measures cannot reduce risk as low as reasonably practicable. In healthcare and in care homes, this is likely to remain a requirement in these settings for the foreseeable future.

It is recommended that employees attending work will also do twice weekly lateral flow (LFD) tests. They can order test kits online for free and this will help detect some asymptomatic or mild cases. Any positive LFD test should be followed by a PCR laboratory test to confirm the diagnosis of Covid.