Having been thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic, the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) can perhaps be forgiven for appearing to play catch up in issuing employer guidance to help manage this invisible foe, writes regulatory lawyer Rhian Greaves.
Last week finally saw the publication of a comprehensive guide to what should be included within the COVID-19 risk assessments the government has been imploring businesses to prepare since early May. Containing consistent themes for our new world of work, here are the top 10 things that struck me upon reading it.
1. HAND WASHING
We began this crisis light-heartedly washing our hands while singing a double rendition of 'happy birthday'. But as the virus continues to hit hard, we find hand hygiene remains front and centre. The science tells us adequate hand washing is effective but also simple, logical and cheap. It is difficult to imagine a reasonable excuse for an employer that fails in this respect.
2. WORKER ENGAGEMENT
While there have long been legal requirements to consult with employees, COVID-19 as a risk has grabbed the attention like few other hazards. The risk assessment reinforces the importance of worker input: 'make sure you talk to your workers and their representatives to explain the measures you are taking. They can also provide valuable information on how you could control the risks'. Employers ignore this at their peril.
3. SOCIAL DISTANCING
Social distancing is becoming an increasingly elastic concept; sometimes two metres, sometimes 'one metre plus' and differing throughout the UK. The document reminds employers that local rules may differ which highlights the importance of nationwide organisations remaining abreast of local updates and being agile and responsive to changes at short notice.
4. REMOTE WORKING
Virtually all jobs have changed in some way since the Spring. Many of our new working practices are no doubt here to stay. There is a hint of this in the new document, which encourages the increased use of online meeting facilities, even when people are working in the same building.
Good ventilation is another basic control measure to reduce the risk. This is reflected in the risk assessment, which suggests propping open non-fire doors to improve air circulation, ushering in another important point: COVID-19 control measures should not adversely impact pre-existing safety regimes.
6. MENTAL WELLBEING
The document takes a huge step forward in identifying the detrimental impact of the pandemic on our collective mental health and wellbeing. While the focus is on planning for those coming back into workplaces, huge numbers are still working from home and the importance of contact, time management and fatigue are among the hazards highlighted.
7. BACK PAIN
Thinking about those remote workers, the assessment also highlights the musculoskeletal disorders risked by lengthy DSE use at home. The HSE maintains that 'there is no increased risk for people working at home temporarily' but there is no question that this pandemic is testing the bounds of what 'temporarily' really means.
8. SHIELDING WORKERS
The all-encompassing task facing employers is laid bare by the need to identify those within the workforce who are vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable. The suggested control measures include an individual assessment of these employees and a discussion to identify what is needed in each case. Managing to balance the risk management elements of this process with the employer’s HR obligations will be no mean feat.
Once again we see the attempt to stretch health and safety law beyond its typical boundaries. In identifying occasions when social distancing may be difficult, employers’ control measures are said to include the provision of facilities to keep people from public transport and creating working cohorts of those who already travel to work together.
10. FACE COVERINGS
The very last point, contained within brackets; face coverings. These are 'not required to be worn in the workplace' but 'where people choose to wear them you should support them'. The government guidance for those in close contact sectors such as hairdressing now requires the wearing of visors to 'provide a barrier between the wearer and the client from respiratory droplets caused by sneezing, coughing or speaking'. Of course face coverings are also now mandatory on public transport too. Logically there is an acceptance that simple barriers (not PPE) have a part to play in reducing the transmission risk and a more sweeping change in the existing non-committal position feels almost inevitable.
Rhian is a partner at Pannone Corporate