As businesses work towards reopening again, and mindful of advice and restrictions that may continue to change, employers must plan and implement workplace safety in a way that cares for their people and safeguards their health and wellbeing.

‘Working Safely’ guidance

The UK Government's ‘Working Safely’ guidance provides precautions that employers in England can take to manage risk and support their staff and customers. It emphasises employers’ legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business, including the need to carry out health and safety risk assessments and taking reasonable steps to mitigate risk. Different guidance applies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

The guidance contains priority actions to take to protect staff and customers, as well as detailed sections on risk, who should attend work, ventilation, reducing contact for workers, reducing risk for customers, visitors and contractors, cleaning the workplace, personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings, workforce management and tests and vaccinations.

The overall gist of the guidance is that there is a very high degree of responsibility on employers to care for employees and customers during the pandemic. The guidance suggests that many of the previous precautions should continue; despite the voluntary language used, there are numerous reminders of how employers’ normal legal obligations include the health and safety risk of COVID.

The government emphasises the importance of ventilation, referring to the advice on air conditioning and ventilation on the HSE website.

The advice encourages updated health and safety risk assessments that include COVID-19 risks, more regular cleaning of surfaces and hand sanitiser provision. Employers should also mitigate risk by reducing the number of people employees and workers come into contact with. The UK Government suggestions reflect previous CIPD advice including:

  • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’
  • ‘cohorting’ (so each person works with only a few others)
  • use of face coverings (in line with latest advice)
  • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
  • using back-to-back or side-to-side working, instead of face-to-face
  • assigning workstations to an individual or if desk sharing is necessary, clean them between each user.

A rarely publicised aspect of the guidance is that businesses are encouraged to turn away people with COVID-19 symptoms. This will be difficult for employers to determine as the initial symptoms of a cold and COVID-19 may be similar. It remains an offence to allow a person who should be self-isolating to come to work.

Employers should take extra care of 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.

CIPD guiding principles

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?

Read the guide to working safely through COVID-19 here

Opportunity for change

With so much disruption from the pandemic, people’s expectations around work, how they fulfil their role, and how they reconcile work and domestic responsibilities may have changed dramatically. This is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working, and harness more agile and flexible working. At the heart of any plans should be a commitment to support flexible, remote and hybrid working where possible, in line with the latest advice. 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 planning for remote and hybrid working.

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 government guidance.

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to work in, following the latest government guidance.

Consultation

Consultation may help staff feel safer, taking into account their input on any health and safety measures put in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Our Impact of COVID-19 on working lives research shows that 62% of people who haven’t been consulted are anxious about going into work, vs 42% for those who have been consulted. 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 local and wider outbreaks.

It is important that businesses engage with their people to understand how they feel. There should be consultation with staff at a company level but it’s also important that line managers understand the specific concerns of their individual team members so they can 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 COVID-specific risk assessments to assist in their decision-making process, considering the factors referred to above, including the feasibility of implementing social distancing, staff vaccination status and local outbreaks (if any).

Sector-specific workplace guidance for various sectors of the economy (as referred to above) must be followed. 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 that their health, wellbeing and safety is your top priority. 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.

To maintain protection and hygiene measures and minimise the spread of infection, remind staff about regular and effective handwashing, and provide hand sanitisers. You should review your cleaning arrangements, for example, ensuring all phones/keyboards…etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner. You can refer to the government guidance for more information.

Depending on your working environment, you may need to consider providing additional PPE, including masks or anti-viral hand gel. If you want people to wear gloves or face coverings, then you will also need to think about reminding staff on their correct usage – since these can be ineffective if used inappropriately.

Testing and vaccination

Employers may wish to consider if COVID-19 certification will form a part of facilitating safety in the workplace for larger numbers of employees. Vaccination proof alone has been contentious: vaccination has not been made mandatory at a national level, although it is mandatory in care homes and in the wider health and care sector from April 2022. COVID-19 certification using the NHS app can include use of recent testing as well as vaccination status. Employers can consider a framework for the testing or vaccination of essential workers, as has happened for example in the care sector.

At the very least, employers need to think about their own organisational policies around whether some or all staff are required to be vaccinated as part of their job. Employers should continue to monitor the latest government guidance and be prepared to act upon any changes. More information on the issues involving vaccination and testing is available in our guide on COVID-19 vaccination and in our vaccination and testing FAQs.

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. Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, and financial worries if their family has had a reduction in income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement. Some members of staff may have concerns about travelling and socially distancing on public transport – or that it may not be as readily available. 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 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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