As the national lockdown eases and more people return to work, the government has published guidance to “help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely” in the COVID-secure workplace.
Although case numbers are falling, there remains anxiety on all sides about the risks of coronavirus. Nonetheless, businesses must find a balance between managing new COVID-related risks and existing, potentially more serious hazards.
The risks of COVID-secure guidance
The government’s advice contains key rules and objectives on how to create and maintain a safe working environment.
The duty of care that employers owe to safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of employees has not changed during the pandemic. However, policies designed to minimise the risk of infection could increase the risk of illness or injury in other ways. If staff will be exposed to new risks, then these risks must also be removed or mitigated.
Existing health and safety policies may even conflict with new policies. For example, how does a pub maintain social distancing if two employees are required to lift a barrel? The following considers some areas where workers could face additional risks in the COVID-secure workplace.
Adapting policies for fewer staff
Homeworking and shift staggering, by design, reduce the number of people concurrently at work. In some circumstances thinning out staff numbers could increase the risk of injury.
With fewer employees on-site, an injured person might go unnoticed. If an injured worker was being helped by the only other person on site, should that person go and find help, or remain with the worker?
Individual employees may need to diversify the tasks they carry out, and new recruits may be hired in haste. Without suitable training on the tools and equipment employees will use, the risk of injury will increase. Ongoing supervision will also need to be considered for employees carrying out new tasks.
Companies will also need to work out how to have first aid and fire safety officers available at all times.
Reconfiguring workstations and PPE
Where possible, the government recommends that employees work back to back or side by side. If people are wearing ear defenders as part of their work, they may not notice another injured person. They may also miss another person warning them of danger.
The interaction and compatibility between standard PPE and PPE required to prevent infection must also be considered. Is existing equipment useable with a facemask or shield?
Managing fatigue and stress
Reduced workforces mean that some people are working at maximum capacity. Longer and more stressful working days will lead to fatigue and an increased risk of injury. Employers are also responsible for the mental wellbeing of employees.
The psychological impact of sustained periods of overwork should not be underestimated, particular in the context of other COVID-related stresses like family illness or anxiety.
Public liability risks
Employers are also responsible for the safety of customers and visitors. Many of the risks to employee safety apply equally to members of the public visiting the company’s premises.
For example, fewer staff on-premises means less resources to manage public safety. A spillage in a supermarket aisle might not be spotted and cleaned up before a customer slips on it and sustains an injury.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the risks to the health and safety of employees (including homeworkers) at work.
Government guidance reminds employers to update their risk assessments to manage the risk of coronavirus by:
- Identifying what tasks or circumstances could lead to transmission
- Identifying who might be at risk and the probability of exposure
- Removing or mitigating the risk
Once the COVID risk assessment has been completed, employers should then review their existing risk assessment to identify any new risks or conflicting policies resulting from the changes. These risks must also be removed or managed where possible.
The government still recommends working from home wherever possible. Many office-based businesses are now considering a more permanent move to homeworking. Employers have the same duty of care to homeworkers as they do to other staff.
At-home risk assessments must be carried out to assess homeworker health and safety remotely. Employers could use video calls or recordings to assess a worker’s home setup for hazards.
There is also the risk of some employees developing mental health issues such as stress, anxiety or depression. It will be harder for the employer to passively monitor homeworkers but the obligation to do so remains.
Employers’ liability and COVID-19
Recent headlines suggest that coronavirus compensation claims will be the next PPI. Certainly, the insurance industry is bracing itself for an onslaught of everything from business continuity to travel claims.
It is, however, very unlikely that coronavirus infection cases will be the ‘next big thing’ for employment liability solicitors. (Medical negligence claims have already been blocked by Sections 11-13 of the Coronavirus Act 2020.)
Proving that an employer ‘caused’ an employee to catch coronavirus will be difficult as long as there are multiple potential sources of infection. A claimant might, for example, have been exposed at home or on the train to work.
The above is not a reason to be complacent. Aside from the obvious risk to business continuity if infection causes multiple absences, staff will also expect meaningful measures to be taken. Returning workers must have confidence that their workplace is safe and that any concerns are being addressed.
Taking a consultative approach to risk management
The aftermath of a serious accident at work is a difficult time for any business. Even though employers’ liability insurance will cover the financial cost of an injured employee’s compensation, the cost in terms of management time, confidence and morale can have serious, long-term consequences.
Taking the time to consider the broader impact of any coronavirus measures will help employers reduce the risk of employee injury and further business disruption at a critical time.
Employees will be understandably wary of returning to work. Adopting a more consultative approach to new health and safety measures will help to secure employee buy-in help and build a stronger team with a greater sense of shared responsibility.
Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services. Chris is a regular commentator on workplace injury law and occupational illness in the legal press.