As lockdown measures begin to ease, organisations are determining how to restore service and production to as near ‘normal’ as possible, including planning a return to the workplace.

The situation remains dynamic, so it is important to check government guidance regularly. In England the ‘Working Safely’ guidance applies, while there is specific information for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Businesses should put employees’ health and safety at the centre of their return-to-work processes. Where staff are required to be on site, IOSH have set out the following four key areas employers should address:

  • Safe people
  • Safe workplaces
  • Safe equipment
  • Safe systems

If an employer fails to take reasonable care in any of these areas, an employee may be able to make a number of claims, including resigning and claiming constructive unfair dismissal and personal injury. If an employer breaches a duty (such as the requirement to provide insurance) it is a criminal offence.

Employers are also expected to comply with health and safety legal requirements. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), all employers with over five employees must have a written health and safety policy. In cases of non-compliance, enforcement officers can issue improvement or prohibition notices, which can lead to criminal penalties including large fines and imprisonment. Employers with less than five employees may still find it useful to document their health and safety procedure. See our Health and safety at work factsheet for more on this.

Apart from the need to abide by all legal obligations around health and safety, there is also a clear moral obligation for employers to protect employees from harm.

This guide outlines health and safety considerations and measures for employers as they plan for employees returning to their workplaces. This guide also suggests how HR, occupational safety and health (OSH) and other functions can work together to achieve this.

Health and safety and people management responsibilities

Employers have a fundamental duty of care for their employees’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. This should be at the core of any people strategy, and central to the way an organisation operates and fulfils its mission. If employees’ health and wellbeing is supported, they are likely to be more engaged, motivated and effective at work.

To help ensure that recommendations become reality, everyone in the organisation must play their part:

  • HR professionals should work closely with health and safety professionals.
  • Line managers are uniquely positioned to engage with the workforce and emphasise the importance of employees’ health and wellbeing to the organisation. 
  • Employees also have a responsibility to support the implementation of a safe workplace.

Ultimately, high levels of health, safety and wellbeing should be a shared objective for everyone, in organisations of all sizes.

Roles and responsibilities around health and safety tend to be allocated in the following ways.

HR and line managers

HR and line managers are focused on the people within an organisation, so must give due consideration to ensuring employees’ safety, health and wellbeing when carrying out their work.

Some people professionals, especially those in smaller organisations, have oversight of safety, health and wellbeing in their role. In most workplaces, they are responsible for all policies relating to people. Although HR can set the conditions for a safe and healthy workplace, they will often need to collaborate with health and safety colleagues to ensure the right risk assessments and safe systems of work are in place.

As businesses look to manage safe returns to workplaces, IOSH has identified line managers as being particularly well-placed to communicate messages around worker protection to employees. They are also able to recognise and act on new hazards, or opportunities to improve health and safety.

Occupational safety and health (OSH)

In the context of returning safely to the workplace after the Covid-19 pandemic, OSH will need to ensure compliance with applicable legislation including risk assessments and statutory testing of plant, machinery and equipment. Good management systems and risk management practice is key. OSH will also need to consider a whole host of adjustments to the workplace and work activities including:

  • plant and equipment 
  • supply chain 
  • site accessibility and restrictions 
  • inspection timetables 
  • a new hygiene regime 
  • physical or temporal adjustments 
  • process changes
  • policies and rules and how these are to be communicated.

Occupational health professionals consider how work affects a person’s health and how their health affects their work. The CIPD Occupational health factsheet says: ‘Forward-thinking organisations recognise that managing their people is just as important as controlling financial and capital resources. Developing a healthy workplace culture and adopting a systematic approach to OH will contribute to an organisation’s success.’

Facilities and workplace management

In responding to the pandemic and planning Covid-secure workplaces, facilities and workplace management will need to focus on ensuring that the right adjustments are made to create and maintain safe workplaces.

IOSH recommends that workplaces adopt a risk-intelligent, prevention-first approach to ensure that all aspects of work are healthy, and required safeguards are in place so that employee’s long-term health is not impacted.

For more on roles, responsibilities and advice and guidance see the CIPD’s health and safety content and also explore Returning Safely guidance from IOSH.

COVID-secure guidelines and obligations in the UK

As organisations look to reopen the workplace employers will have many questions on how to keep their business safe and legally compliant. The UK government has produced guidance, which is a good starting point to help organisations create a safer, healthier workplace.

However, no two organisations have the same occupational safety and health culture or management systems. The core framework and intent is common to most, but details need to be customised for each organisation, sometimes for individual sites and maybe even for a particular team.

OSH will be aware of the internationally acknowledged approaches to combatting the spread and effects of Covid-19. They will look at what you should consider, under the following key headings.

Policy and strategy

Employers should consider the direction of the business and the impact of the virus on its financial stability. The impact on the resources available may in turn affect the viability of the current vision, strategy and goals of the business.

Significant organisational readjustments may be required if products or services have changed, or if protection of the core business becomes the main priority. In all circumstances, employers should have a policy statement of intent, with clear targets and milestones.

Leadership and management commitment should be visible to employees, whose expectations and degree of engagement will be affected accordingly.

Organisation

If facilities and sites have changed in number or complexity, you will need to think about how to manage this. Resources may have been affected and organisational design may have changed, which will both bring specific challenges.

A leader or manager may feel under pressure to ‘perform’ in these uncertain, complex and ambiguous circumstances, but standards of leadership and management practice should not be eroded. This is the time to demonstrate integrity and fairness, building employee confidence and trust in the leadership team. Good leadership structure and practices will help to maintain trust and integrity.

Consider how you can harness the knowledge and competencies of the OSH team, whose particular skillsets will be an important asset. While they will have all the requisite technical skills, they should also help communicate to the workforce the health and safety steps the organisation is taking.

Risk management and controls

Organisations must adhere to guidance and legislative requirements for safeguarding people in the workplace, including disease detection, prevention and control. The nature of your organisation will of course determine the exposure potential and susceptibility of employees to infection.

An organisation’s safety and health culture is greatly influenced by the behaviour of its leadership and management. Leadership’s response to Covid-19 will in turn help determine how effectively its safety and health teams responds to this, and potentially impact the organisation’s wider reputation as an employer.

Monitoring and measuring

Implementing effective virus control measures is key to sustaining operations. Monitor these measures actively, some with fixed frequencies and some on an ad hoc basis. At the same time, be ready to respond reactively and investigate if controls cease to be effective or fail.

Ensure that routine internal metrics reflect priorities and concerns. This may include key performance indicators and sickness or absence levels, as well as indicators of employee wellbeing and engagement. Ensure that compliance with new or amended controls is monitored.

Look beyond your organisation to learn from events and developments at a local, national and global level, as well as within your own industrial sector. For example, consider benchmarking against peer organisations.

Reporting

There may be changes to reporting requirements to the board, as well as changes to other governance requirements. Shareholders and other stakeholders will take a keen interest in how you are managing the return to work and the impact on business.

Financial reporting will certainly be a key demand within a short time of the return-to-work process, but you may also be expected to report on non-financial matters too.

Working together for safe and healthy workplaces

The reopening of your business premises will not happen overnight. Once you have made your premises safe, you must consider how your staff and organisational culture can adapt. This is a tremendous opportunity to collaborate across the organisation to ‘build back better’.

IOSH has identified many ways in which OSH professionals frequently collaborate with other professionals across organisations. The image below illustrates a selection of these.

Maintaining a positive occupational safety and health culture remains important in motivating, supporting and valuing workers. It is truly a collaborative effort.

Here are some tips:

  • Lead by example: senior managers should keep up to date with the latest government guidance and take the necessary steps to keep their workers safe.

  • Communicate constructively about any necessary steps or changes. Give regular updates to keep workers informed on safety matters, but avoid over-communicating.

  • Maintain openness and honesty about any financial pressures and other organisational concerns. Directness with workers on the organisation’s approach and response to the crisis will have a positive influence on their values, beliefs and attitudes.

  • Listen: make opportunities for workers to voice their concerns and provide answers.

  • Be clear about any variances in changes or activities across different parts of the organisation, but keep in mind any worker vulnerabilities and personal circumstances.

  • Uphold: apply a risk-based approach to new ways of working without undermining previous good practice. Any workplace modifications should make workers feel better protected. Continue to keep workers informed in operational OSH decisions.

  • Manage workers’ health: ensure workers understand procedures in place for sickness or absence and any new reporting expectations. Include any support tools available within the organisation as well as from external sources.

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