The current COVID-19 health and safety priorities

As the COVID-19 emergency evolves, understanding your changing occupational health and safety responsibilities becomes more challenging. There is a lot of guidance from the Health and Safety Executive continually being updated online. Jon Herbert reports.

The HSE’s approach

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has an urgent message for dutyholders. It reminds them that occupational health and safety legal requirements remain in place despite the current crisis. It adds that it will use its available regulatory capacity to ensure that responsibilities are being met.

To put this into context, the regulator recently released two joint statements to clarify the health and safety position of workers during the COVID-19 crisis. The first, issued with the TUC and CBI, outlines the present situation and contingency steps that will be taken if circumstances change. The second is a similar statement with the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland.

However, the HSE is doing all it can to support businesses through this difficult period and a comprehensive round-up of the detailed information on the health and safety issues the HSE considers particularly important can also be seen at www.hse.gov.uk.

Current COVID-19 health and safety priorities

Working with Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE), the HSE currently lists nine key areas that health and safety managers should be concentrating on, although it also provides information on a wide range of additional issues such as key procedures, procurement updates, plus essential best practice reminders.

1. RIDDOR reporting of COVID-19

During the crisis, a report under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) is needed when:

  • an unintended incident at work leads to a possible or actual exposure to coronavirus (reported as a dangerous occurrence)

  • a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19 with reasonable evidence of exposure at work (reported as a case of disease)

  • a worker dies as a result of occupational exposure to coronavirus.

RIDDOR reports can be made online via the HSE website.

2. Social distancing at work

The HSE recognises concerns about workplace social distancing and is in contact with trade unions. Where employers are not complying with PHE guidance, actions considered may range from specific advice to enforcement notices.

3. Personal protective equipment provided in health care settings

HSE and PHE experts have done a “rapid review” of evidence on the healthcare use of personal protective equipment (PPE) with regards to COVID-19 in two parts for the Government:

  • equivalence of N95 and FFP2 masks

  • aprons, gowns and eye protection.

The HSE says the recommendation is that FFP3 respirators are used in care for patients involving high-risk aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs); and that when FFP3 respirators are not available, FFP2 respirators may be used. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends FFP2 and N95 respirators for AGPs.

4. Fit testing face masks to avoid transmission

Tight-fitting respirators — such as disposable FFP3 masks and reusable half masks — rely on a good seal with the wearer’s face. A face fit test is needed to ensure the respiratory protective equipment (RPE) protects the wearer.

5. Manufacture and supply of biocidal hand sanitiser products

The HSE says it is working closely with other government agencies, manufacturers and their trade associations to help ensure they can meet the increased demand for vital active substances.

Some existing UK biocidal hand sanitiser product manufacturers report significant supply chain challenges due to high demand for the raw ingredients. In response, the HSE has introduced short-term derogations under Article 55 (1) of the Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR) from product authorisation requirements for hand sanitisers containing propan-2-ol. Where propan-1-ol or ethanol is involved, the HSE requires more information from applicants to determine their efficacy and risks via biocidesenquiries@hse.gov.uk using “Propan-2-ol Article 55” as the subject title.

Detailed information is also given on:

  • rules for supplying chemicals for use in biocidal products, hand sanitisers containing propan-1-ol or ethanol

  • active substances not yet subject to authorisation under the Biocidal Products Regulations

  • hand sanitisers that do not contain alcohol.

6.Arrangements for driver welfare and hours of work

All drivers must have access to welfare facilities in premises visited during their work. Preventing access is not only against the law, it may also increase the risk of the COVID-19 spreading, the HSE says.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced a limited temporary relaxation of drivers' hours rules in England, Scotland, and Wales delivering:

  • food

  • non-food (personal care household paper and cleaning)

  • over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.

Employers remain responsible for drivers’ health and safety and that of other road users, plus anyone involved in loading and unloading.

7. Protecting home workers

Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as other employees. The HSE has created a Toolbox on homeworkers to help with the current move to homeworking.

Factors to consider include:

  • how to keep in touch

  • the work activity involved

  • risk assessment

  • control measures needed for protection

  • lone working without supervision

  • working with display screen equipment

  • specialised DSE equipment needs

  • stress and mental health.

8. Thorough examination and testing of lifting and pressure equipment

Given the risk of COVID-19 transmission, the HSE understands the challenges of carrying out legal requirements for the thorough examination and testing of plant and equipment.

However, the law for Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER) and Pressure Systems Safety Regulations 2000 remain in place. The HSE points out this legal obligation ensures that equipment is safe to use.

Therefore, the HSE website gives advice for maintaining your examination and testing schedule as well as what can be done if requirements cannot be met.

It also outlines its enforcement approach during the crisis.

9. First-aid cover and qualifications

If first-aid cover in the workplace is reduced because of the coronavirus, or if first-aid training is not possible, the HSE suggests a review process to determine if cover can still be provided. The HSE website explains how to:

  • keep enough first-aid cover for fewer people in the workplace

  • share first-aid cover with other businesses

  • first-aid certificate extensions

  • cope with interrupted first-aid training.

Conclusion

Health and safety managers have a continuing duty to comply with occupational health and safety legal requirements during the current COVID-19 crisis, says the HSE, and it will be using its available regulatory capacity to ensure that responsibilities are being met.

However, the regulator is also making available online regularly updated information and guidance on key aspects and issues of the pandemic at Coronavirus (COVID-19): Latest Information and Guidance.