Is training, skills, experience and knowledge a simple recipe for competence? Regulatory lawyer Rhian Greaves considers the impact of the pandemic on employee skills.
The delay to lifting restrictions in England announced yesterday means the looming shadow of Covid-19 continues to challenge employers. Already exhausted by responding to the continuous and confusing changes in law and guidance, adapting to the full reopening of society presents a further taxing exercise.
As we prepare to embark on this next stage of recovery next month, employers will need to think very carefully about their employees and how the events of the past 15 months have impacted them personally and professionally. In particular, thought needs to be given to their competence. In short; are they still up to the job? If not, what support is needed to help them achieve pre-pandemic levels of performance?
Let’s start with the law
Employers have a legal duty to provide employees with the information, instruction, training and supervision that is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, their health and safety.
And of course in many cases the capabilities of staff will also have a bearing not just on the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues, but also on others, for example visitors, contractors, service users, members of the public. The law covers that too.
Employers must carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment covering their operations and it is incumbent upon them to take account of employee competence when undertaking this process.
What do we mean by competence?
In this context, competence is a combination of training, skills, experience and knowledge that an employee has, along with their ability to apply them to perform their work tasks safely. In other words, do they recognise the risks of the job and can they apply the right measures to control and manage them?
Why is this relevant now?
Covid-19 has had a significant impact on businesses, workers, workplaces and systems. None of those things are as they were before. Employers must consider the effect of the pandemic on each and, in turn, the consequential effect on the competence of employees. Let’s look at these factors.
A House of Commons research briefing published earlier this month confirms 'the magnitude of the recession caused by the pandemic is unprecedented in modern times', with a 'historically' large decline in GDP in 2020.
This economic damage is now beginning to be reflected in the numbers of businesses restructuring; rationalising operations, looking for savings and cutting head count. With each new fiscal measure introduced, likely comes a health and safety impact; fewer staff, reduced availability of equipment and squeezed training budgets are just a few examples.
The physical and mental effects of the pandemic are still to fully emerge. But certainly consideration needs to be given to the workforce; demographically, physically and emotionally. And of course many businesses have people returning to the workplace for the first time since early 2020 or at least for a number of months. Their ability to perform at pre-pandemic levels may have been impaired by the enforced absence from the premises.
From empty offices and one way systems to screens and sanitising stations; workplaces look different now. Revised workplace layouts and traffic routes may impact a range of issues including fire safety measures.
Very few employees now do their job in exactly the same way that they did it in February 2020. Methods have changed to reduce the Covid-19 risk, from enforcing social distancing, to creating staff bubbles, intensifying cleaning regimes and adding PPE requirements.
1. Assess the risks
Start with a risk assessment that considers how things have evolved and changed in the business and how employees fit into that. Not only have roles changed, the physical workplace may be different and workers may be doing unfamiliar tasks created either by systems changes or restructuring and redundancies.
Think about refresher training, even for the basics. Many people have been away from their normal working environment for so long, such re-learning is already overdue.
Provide information; how have things changed? What is now expected? Where can further details be found? Who can employees go to for guidance?
4. What's new?
Ensure training is delivered to roll out new working methods. Employees should not be left to their own devices. Coronavirus-enforced changes may have created new risks and the business must ensure that its workers are aware of the control measures needed to manage both the Covid-19 risks and the normal day-to-day hazards of the work.
5. Check expiration dates
Where employees have specific qualifications, check whether these have now expired. Training providers are extremely busy so move swiftly to book in any necessary courses. Most accreditation and certification bodies have extended 'grace' periods to allow time for re-qualification but these must be checked on a case by case basis. Where employees are already out of time, be careful not to overburden colleagues with current qualifications with additional work.
6. Look at your supply chain
Where you are dealing with third-party contractors who have expired qualifications, consider how you will deal with this. Can the contractor provide enhanced supervision for example?
7. Offer support
Consider supervision. If you have moved to a hybrid model of working, is sufficient oversight in place for those not working from home? The availability of adequate supervision is critical not only in relation to physical safety and in identifying threats to compliance but also in reducing workplace stress.
8. Remember remote workers
Where there are home workers, what measures have you implemented to protect them? Ergonomics are of course key, but so are mental health and wellbeing concerns, for example are they separating work and home life effectively? Is there evidence of excessive hours being worked? Are there lone working concerns?
9. Take it on board
Keep learning from your employees. Talk to them about their confidence levels and be open to feedback about new workplace arrangements. Demonstrate empathy – the shifting sands of the workplace and the disruption to routine won’t always be easy for employees to digest.
10. Look at the top
Remember that competence is needed throughout the organisation, from top to bottom. Are you happy that managers and directors have the understanding and capacity to identify where employees need further support and training?
Assessing and maintaining competence is tough at the best of times. Post-pandemic it’s a real challenge. It’s not just about being able to do something successfully or well, an essential element is the ability to do it in a way that achieves health and safety compliance time and time again. And to do so against the backdrop of a relentless year of change means it's not such a simple recipe after all.
Rhian Greaves is legal director, regulatory – safety, health and environment at DAC Beachcroft