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Continuing to work safely during the pandemic

With the Prime Minister recently confirming that England will continue with its Plan B restrictions in light of the spread of the Omicron variant, we look at the latest guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on working safely and managing the ongoing risk of Covid-19. When the Plan B restrictions are removed, the guidance around homeworking, stress and mental health and talking with your workforce will continue to be highly relevant in the hybrid workplace. The HSE’s guidance will inevitably evolve over time as new Covid variants emerge.

Specialists from our Regulatory & Compliance and Employment teams are here to assist with any queries you may have about the impact of the latest changes on your business and the practicalities of managing your workforce as both employers and employees continue to navigate the Future World of Work. Please get in touch.

Creating and maintaining a Covid-secure environment

You should update your Covid risk assessment to decide what reasonable steps need to be taken to manage risks and protect your workers and others. This includes identifying activities or situations that might cause transmission, considering who could be at risk and the likelihood of exposure, and identifying the required controls to reduce the risk. Talking with your workers is a key part of the process. Remember that you have a legal duty to consult workers on health and safety matters. The HSE’s guidance emphasises that a generic risk assessment is unlikely to be specific or detailed enough.

One of the most significant changes following the introduction of Plan B measures is the return of government advice that those who can work from home should do so. You must ensure that your risk assessment covers home workers. Considerations include stress and mental health, working with display screen equipment, and the worker’s working environment. Bear in mind that some workers may prefer to come into the workplace for wellbeing, mental health or other reasons. The HSE’s latest guidance on home working, for both employers and employees, can be found here.

In relation to the workplace, the following familiar practical controls remain: adequate ventilation; sufficient cleaning; and good hand hygiene. The HSE stresses that none of these control measures on their own can help manage virus transmission and your risk assessment should identify a package of measures.

While there are no legal limits on contact between people from different households, and there is no government requirement or recommendation for employers to limit capacity in the workplace, you still need to consider measures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. This could include limiting the number of people your workers come into contact with, so that each person works with the same consistent group or screens/barriers/back-to-back or side-to-side working are used to separate workers who don’t normally mix. The government says that you should consider the need for these measures in the context of other workplace measures you have put in place as part of your risk assessment. They should only be applied where practical, for example without imposing restrictions on business operations or reducing workplace capacity. The government’s guidance on working safely, across a range of industry sectors and types of workplace, can be found here [1]. Note the reintroduction of mandatory face coverings in some public indoor settings.

It is important that you consider the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and put controls in place to reduce that risk. The HSE has produced specific guidance on protecting vulnerable workers. With regard to pregnant workers, if you cannot put the necessary control measures in place, such as working from home or adjustments to the job, you should suspend the worker on paid leave. You should also consider reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities (including hidden disabilities that are not immediately obvious).

If testing is provided on-site, it must be carried out safely and in an appropriate setting where control measures are in place. This includes having an appropriate space for workers to wait while their test is being processed. It is an offence to allow a worker who you know is self-isolating to come to work.

The HSE is continuing to carry out spot checks and inspections.

Steps to take now
  • Follow and regularly review the HSE’s guidance – the main coronavirus webpage on working safely can be found here
  • Update and document your Covid risk assessment
  • Implement measures to reduce transmission risk
  • Put monitoring and supervision in place to ensure measures are working as expected and are applied stringently
  • If buildings were closed or had reduced occupancy during the pandemic, consider the increased risks of Legionnaires’ disease and take the appropriate action
  • Consider publishing your risk assessment results on your website – the government expects all employers with over 50 workers to do so
  • Keep all your workers, contractors and visitors updated on how you are using and updating safety measures
  • If you receive a call from the HSE, act on it

Talking with your workforce

As many workers now return to full time homeworking as a result of Plan B, communication remains as important as ever.

The HSE’s guidance on talking with your workers about preventing coronavirus contains specific sections on working at home or going to the workplace, communicating information and guidance, and stress, wellbeing and providing support.

It is well documented that the pandemic has had a significant effect on some people’s mental health. According to the HSE’s latest statistics, 645,000 workers reported that their work-related illness was caused or made worse by the pandemic; 70 per cent of these were cases of stress, depression or anxiety. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.

As the HSE explains in the stress and mental health section of its guidance on protecting home workers, people who are deprived of social contact through work can feel isolated or disconnected, bringing on pressure and stress or aggravating pre-existing mental health problems. Practical steps you can take to help manage the risks of stress include having regular keep-in touch meetings or calls so that the worker can share any concerns. Keep in regular contact both one to one and as a team, and ensure that meetings are accessible to all of your workers (remembering that some may prefer to work in the workplace rather than at home).

The HSE’s guidance specifically mentions work/life balance, including the need to speak regularly about workloads, demands and training needs. See our earlier briefing on a potential ‘right to disconnect’.

Steps to take now
  • Follow and regularly review the HSE’s guidance, including on stress and mental health
  • Think about how you are communicating with workers and others, taking into account accessibility, individual needs, beliefs and cultures and the requirement to consult. Is your strategy effective? Is your messaging clear?
  • Explain how workers will continue to be supported (and support them to get the help they need)
  • Ensure that those workers who are coming into the workplace are aware of changes to workplace controls, particularly if they have been away from the office for some time
  • Remind workers of the need to employ workplace controls, even if they have been vaccinated
  • Keep workers informed of your future plans

In related news, the Flexible Working Taskforce recently launched practical hybrid working guidance for employers, focusing on people management, recruitment and induction, inclusion and fairness, and health, safety and wellbeing. The government’s consultation on proposals to reform flexible working regulations closed on 1 December 2021. Walker Morris will continue to monitor and report on developments. In the meantime, please see our ‘Top 5 for 2022: What’s in store for the Future World of Work?’ and do not hesitate to contact one of our experts below for advice or assistance.

 

[1] If your risk assessment shows that personal protective equipment (PPE) is required, note that employers’ responsibilities to workers regarding the provision of PPE are changing from 6 April 2022. The HSE has prepared interim guidance explaining the changes.

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Claire
Burrows

Director

Regulatory & Compliance

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Andrew
Rayment

Partner

Employment

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Lucy
Gordon

Director

Employment

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Lucy's contact details

+44 (0)113 283 4552

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