In the past few weeks, our lives have changed beyond all recognition. With increasingly stringent restrictions on our movement, virtually all jobs have changed in some way. In turbulent times, we seek reassurance in what we know. And while it’s quite a time to work in the OSH profession, we have the comfort of a familiar safety blanket to wrap around our colleagues.
What does the law say?
The Health and Safety at Work Act is robust. Set to withstand the upheaval of Brexit, it is equally capable of responding to COVID-19, its general duties catering adequately for our 'new normal'.
The starting point is the general duty under section 2 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees. While the risk of contracting coronavirus is not one created by work, it is clearly one that can be increased by normal working practices and so employers have a duty to identify and take appropriate measures to mitigate.
So far, so simple?
Well, not quite. The review will begin with task based risk assessments; how does the virus threat change those?
Some judgments will be easy. Clerical staff may be able to work at home. Field based personnel likewise. But the exercise becomes more difficult when you identify those who cannot do so or those particularly vulnerable to the virus; pregnant workers, those beyond typical retirement age, those with underlying health conditions.
Add to that the moving feast of government guidance and the impact of overlaying that advice on to your existing systems without creating further risks.
Finally, take into account a dwindling workforce as employees follow self-isolation advice when symptoms appear in their households. The requirement to keep risk assessments under review has rarely been so pertinent.
What if we have a confirmed case?
The employee must be told not to come to work and advised to follow the self-isolation guidelines. Be careful of presenteeism; your duty extends to all your employees as well as others who may come into contact with your business.
Where you have a confirmed case, fresh guidance from the Information Commissioner confirms that 'you should keep staff informed about cases in your organisation. Remember, you probably don’t need to name individuals and you shouldn’t provide more information than necessary. You have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of your employees, as well as a duty of care'.
A pragmatic approach to this is an essential part of the GDPR and health and safety jigsaw.
Is it RIDDOR reportable?
- UPDATED 6 APRIL 2020
Yes. It can be. New HSE guidance sets out two circumstances where reports are required:
- Where an unintended incident at work has led to a possible or actual exposure to coronavirus, for example where a lab worker smashes a vial containing a coronavirus sample. This is to be reported as a dangerous occurrence. ·
- Where a worker has been diagnosed as having Covid-19 and there is reasonable evidence it was caused by workplace exposure, such as a healthcare professional treating affected patients. This must be reported as a disease.
The HSE’s vocational examples are straightforward but the guidance begs more questions than it answers. For instance, what amounts to 'a diagnosis' when most sufferers are not tested? Equally, what does 'reasonable evidence' look like for employers not on the front line in terms of healthcare response? How does a supermarket know whether the individual contracted the virus at work or on their commute or at home?
This is no criticism of the HSE, which like all agencies is racing to keep pace with the pandemic, but hopefully some further clarity will follow.
What are the obligations towards home workers?
Many organisations employ staff who work from home infrequently but now many sectors, my own included, suddenly have a workforce operating exclusively from their homes. Importantly, these people are still 'at work' and normal legal obligations apply. Back to section 2.
In practice, that means:
Assess the risks. Even though homeworking is temporary, it is good practice to provide staff with a checklist to help them make any necessary adjustments to their work station. Support this through training delivered by webinar, computer based learning or over the telephone. There are free resources available online to assist.
Provide any equipment needed to create the right conditions for work. Foot rests, risers, ergonomic keyboards and back rests can all be easily transported from the office.
Ensure any work equipment you send home is safe and without risks to health. A current PAT test is a must but think also about where the equipment will now be used; what measures need to be followed by an employee using a shredder in a home they share with children?
What about mental health and wellbeing?
Unsurprisingly, we return to section 2. The employer’s obligation extends to the mental health and safety of employees just as much as the physical.
The onset of the pandemic has undoubtedly increased anxiety within the population, compounded by enforced and unquantified periods of isolation. As an employer, your duty extends to managing the potential for work related stress (WRS), which now incorporates the pressures created by lone working or working around others attempting to maintain social distancing as well as competing priorities as colleagues attempt to juggle caring responsibilities with the day job.
A risk assessment based on the HSE’s Management Standards is key, looking at demands, control, support, relationships, behaviour and role on a job by job basis. Each of these pillars is likely to have been impacted by the spread of the virus regardless of whether your workforce is now home based or continuing to attend at work.
What support should we give?
Organisations should look beyond mere compliance. Supporting colleagues through this unprecedented period is legally and morally the right thing to do. Think about:
- Information: share reputable information and advice and be clear about how the organisation is managing the situation.
- Working hours: where employees are working longer hours to meet demand, this must be monitored and actively managed.
- Systems, resources and processes: create continuity in systems access, decision making and resources.
- Lifestyle contracts: help employees with clear guidance. Set out some modified expectations and allow flexibility so the employee can contribute in a meaningful way but in one that does not unduly burden them.
- Structure: creating structure in a homeworking day can be a challenge so guide colleagues to help them keep to a working routine, create a separate work area and take time for meal breaks and exercise as permitted by the government.
- Health and wellbeing: where you have provision in place (for example through a health insurer), remind employees where they can go for professional help and support.
- Contact: whether it is daily conference calls, allocating a buddy”, digital supervision or coffee via Zoom do what you can to maintain team morale.
Yes. Keep everything under review. As you do with all your risk assessments and method statements; monitor what is happening, engage with your colleagues, take their suggestions and modify your approach as needed. Wrap them up in that familiar safety blanket; right now we all need it.