A safe return to the workplace post-Freedom Day

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As businesses welcome and adapt to the lifting of legal restrictions, the government, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other bodies such as Acas continue to update their guidance on working safely and managing the ongoing risk of Covid-19.

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 we look to the future world of work. Please get in touch.

Creating 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.

The most significant change is that social distancing guidance no longer applies. The following familiar practical workplace controls remain unchanged: 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 the social distancing guidance no longer applies, 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, such as staggering work times, using screens/barriers/back-to-back or side-to-side working, and encouraging the wearing of face coverings. While face coverings are no longer required by law, the government expects and recommends that people continue to wear them in crowded or enclosed spaces.

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. 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.

The HSE is continuing to carry out spot checks and inspections as restrictions are removed.

Steps to take now
  • Follow and regularly review the HSE’s guidance – the main coronavirus webpage on working safely can be found here
  • Follow and regularly review the government’s sector-specific guidance on working safely during coronavirus
  • 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
  • If buildings were closed or had reduced occupancy during the pandemic, consider the increased risks of Legionnaires’ disease and take the appropriate action (see this link)
  • Consider publishing your risk assessment results on your website – the government expects all employers with over 50 workers to do so
  • If you receive a call from the HSE, act on it

Talking with your workforce

Now that the government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, workers are finally starting to return in greater numbers to the physical workplace. The government says that it expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer, and that employers should discuss the timing and phasing of a return with their workers. In this time of transition – with some workers returning to the workplace, others continuing to work fully from home, and employers mulling over their flexible/hybrid working policies – communication is more important than ever.

The HSE’s guidance on talking with your workers about preventing coronavirus contains specific sections on returning 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. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results of our second Future World of Work survey show that there is still a stronger preference among 18 to 24 year olds to spend a greater proportion of time in the office. Factors such as missing the ‘buzz’ of the office environment, difficult living/working arrangements, concerns over career development and face-to-face support and supervision, all play a role. While the focus right now might be on encouraging workers to return to the workplace by holding face-to-face meetings or arranging social events, there are likely to be workers for whom returning to the office is a daunting and anxiety-provoking prospect. Employers should keep this in mind as they navigate a course through this next stage of the pandemic.

As the HSE explains in its guidance on protecting home workers, if contact is poor, workers may feel disconnected, isolated or abandoned. This can affect stress levels and mental health. Employers promoting flexible/hybrid working arrangements will need to ensure that they provide a truly inclusive working environment and do not inadvertently exclude those who take up the offered option of spending more of their time working from home. Ensuring that there is always an option to join a meeting remotely is a simple example.

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
  • Ensure that workers 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