As we learn to live with COVID-19, and mindful of advice and restrictions that may continue to change and differ across the UK, employers must plan and implement workplace safety in a way that cares for their people and safeguards their health and wellbeing.

UK Government guidance

Different advice applies across the UK and employers should keep up to date with the latest information:

In England, there is also general UK Government advice for: 

The underlying theme is that coronavirus remains a dangerous disease, and that the public should remain cautious and get vaccinated. However, people can increasingly make their own judgments about the risk of catching and dealing with it.

Planning and management of workplace safety

Employers should take an individualised approach to consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce, as well as following and monitoring ongoing UK Government guidance.

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to work in, following the latest UK Government guidance. The key aspects that employers should be aware of are:

  • their legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business
  • the need to carry out health and safety risk assessments and taking reasonable steps to protect everyone, including those most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Steps to ensure a safe workplace can include: 

  • Improved ventilation
  • Reduced contact for workers
  • Cleaning the workplace
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings
  • Workforce management and tests and vaccinations.

Employers can refer to the advice on air conditioning and ventilation on the HSE website.

Consultation

The UK Government no longer require COVID-19 control measures as a legal requirement but employers must continue to consult workers and their representatives on any changes they make that might affect health and safety. Consultation may help staff feel safer, taking into account their input on any health and safety measures to reduce the risk of any respiratory infection including COVID-19. Many factors must be considered, including risk assessments, the size and nature of the workplace, the number of vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people, caring responsibilities, public transport dependency, as well as any new variants or local and wider outbreaks.

It is important that businesses engage with their people to understand how they feel. As well as consultation with staff at a company level line managers should understand specific concerns of their individual team members to best support their mental wellbeing and future ways of working. Employers need to stay flexible as guidance and attitudes evolve.

Risk assessments and health and safety measures

Employers must continue to update risk assessments and risk management approaches to safeguard employees’ health and minimise the risk of infection, basing plans on up-to-date government and public health guidance.

Employers can use their risk assessments to assist in their decision-making process, considering the factors referred to above, including ventilation, staff vaccination status and local outbreaks (if any). From 1 April 2022 employers can choose whether to consider COVID 19 specifically or as part of their overall health and safety risk assessments.

The Health and Safety Executive has also published advice and guidance relating to COVID-19 which may be useful when considering health and safety measures.

It’s crucial to work in close collaboration with your health and safety and occupational health teams wherever possible. Regularly communicate to staff the practical measures you are taking to help reassure them. Make sure staff and visitors are clear about the rules and procedures they should follow both in the workplace and at home, especially if they begin to feel unwell.

Employers should take extra care of those at high risk of serious illness, including those with protected characteristics. For example, discuss with disabled workers any reasonable adjustments that can be made to the workplace or working arrangements so they can work safely.

Employers need to think about their own organisational policies around whether some or all staff are required to be vaccinated and/or tested as part of their job. Beginning in England from 1 April 2022 and starting soon in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, free lateral flow testing will end and instead tests will be sold through private market retailers and pharmacies. Free tests will be available for a small number of at-risk groups including social care staff such as care homes and home care.

CIPD guiding principles

In response to the UK Government's ‘Living with Covid-19’ strategy, the CIPD believes that it will be important to continue an open dialogue with employees. Employers need to be led by the principles of what is fair and reasonable to ask, respecting that many people (especially those with vulnerabilities) will still be very concerned about coming into places of work. Reviewing or continuing existing practices to keep workplaces reasonably safe and meeting the fundamental duty of care to protect the physical and mental health of employees will continue to be a priority.  

The CIPD recommends considering three questions to help guide workplace safety:

  1. Is your workplace sufficiently safe and supportive?
  2. Are you being flexible in your approach?
  3. What is best for people’s wellbeing and performance?

Opportunity for change

CIPD research has shown that most people can work just as productively, if not more, from home and that most people would like a mix of office and home working. Many factors affect a person’s professional performance, including their environment, the ability to collaborate or to work quietly and whether they feel a sense of purpose and belonging. Working in the workplace may improve the performance and wellbeing of some people, while others may be more productive working from home.

Employers should consult regularly with their employees to ensure that this performance is balanced by their preferences, especially their health and wellbeing, and to be as flexible as possible.

As part of its #Flexfrom1st campaign the CIPD is calling on employers to build upon the period of remote working and to adapt and learn to make hybrid working a success.

This guide should be read in conjunction with our content on remote and hybrid working.

Wellbeing and mental health

The risks to people’s health from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, as well social isolation due to social distancing restrictions. Some may be struggling with the significant change that society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different.

If your business has an Employee Assistance Programme or access to Occupational Health advisers, make staff aware of the services they can provide. Refer to the CIPD’s content on mental health or resources from organisations like Mind for more. CIPD members can also access a wellbeing helpline for advice and support. You may also wish to share the advice from Carers UK and Carers Trust with any employees with caring responsibilities. Managers should talk to people on an individual and regular basis if they have concerns.

Communicating with your people

Whatever policies you adopt for your business, you should make sure that they are effectively communicated to staff. Many disputes and issues that have arisen during the pandemic have been because businesses were unsure of how to react or had not told staff what their approach would be. It’s always worth stating your general approach in some form of written communication, as well as regular virtual or face-to-face briefings.

Role of line managers

As with so many areas of people management, line managers have a key role to play. You should ensure that they are fully aware of your policies and approaches and, if possible, have had a chance to contribute to them or raise issues about how they might work out in practice. They must be fair and consistent while also being sympathetic to individual concerns and issues.

Conclusion

Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing will give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. Knowing they are valued and supported by their employer – and that you continue to prioritise their health and safety – will be pivotal to their wellbeing.

A guide such as this cannot possibly cover every business situation, but it should help you think about the key issues that businesses that continue to operate from their workplace will need to consider. Keep checking the CIPD Coronavirus Hub for further resources and advice and keep up to date with the latest UK Government advice.

Please note: While every care has been taken in compiling these notes, CIPD cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions. These notes are not intended to be a substitute for specific legal advice.

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