What needs to be considered when employees are returning to work?

As lockdown measures begin to ease and many prepare for a return to work, the government has uploaded eight guidance documents on making workplaces safe during the coronavirus. The documents can be accessed here and are for employers, employees and the self-employed.

Whether a business has furloughed employees or they have had employees working from home, it may be that they are now considering whether people can return to the workplace, be that in an office or a warehouse environment. However, there will obviously be many issues and details for employers to consider before employees and workers return to their premises.

The main objective of the guidance notes seems to be that all employers will have to carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment. The HSE website can help employers with this as it contains helpful resources and guidance on conducting risk assessments at work. The guidance also suggests that if possible, the risk assessment should be published on the company website. It is expected by the government that all businesses with over 50 employees do this.

When asking people to return to the office after working from home, a period of furlough or other absence, it is important that there is clear communication regarding the steps the employer has taken to ensure their health and safety. Creating a culture where employees feel as though they can raise their concerns is also important and if there is a recognised trade union, employers must consult with the health and safety representative.

Five steps for employers

The Government guidance has set out five main steps for employers to consider when asking employees to return to work.

  1. Carry out a risk assessment, as discussed above.
  2. In every workplace, increase the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning.
  3. Businesses and workplaces should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option. Where working from home is not possible, workplaces should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government (keeping people 2m apart wherever possible).
  4. Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff.

    These mitigating actions may include:

     - Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning

    - Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible

    - Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams’ or ‘partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others)

    - Using screens or barriers to separate people

    - Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible 

  5. ​Finally, if people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then you will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment.

In your assessment you should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

This guidance applies to all businesses that are currently open and includes those shops that may be opening from 1 June. The guidance states that for businesses and sectors that are not able to open, further information will be published “ahead of those establishments opening to give those businesses time to plan”.

We will be sure to keep you informed when that time comes but in the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact our employment team should you have any questions.

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