As Britain begins the return to work process, the Government has published a suite of guidance to help employers, workers and the self-employed work safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Vicky Powell looks at some of the key points for working safely in offices, contact centres and similar working spaces.

The 5 main principles

As a starting point, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Government’s new guidance for employers across multiple workplace settings. This is based on five safe working principles, to help businesses get up and running and British workers safely back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

  1. Work from home, if you can. All reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help people work from home but for those who cannot work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, the message is: go to work.

  2. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions, to establish what guidelines to put in place. If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and all businesses with over 50 employees are expected to do so.

  3. Maintain 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible, by redesigning workspaces: staggering start times, creating one-way walk-throughs, opening more entrances and exits, or changing seating layouts in break rooms.

  4. Where people cannot be 2m apart, manage transmission risk by putting barriers in shared spaces, creating shift patterns or ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other.

  5. Reinforcing cleaning processes: workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.

Assessing the risks

At a time when most office workers are not currently in the workplace in Britain, the Government is clear that people should not be forced into an unsafe workplace.

It is therefore essential to plan for how to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping as many people as possible 2m apart from those they do not live with.

In this new climate, employers must make sure that the risk assessment for the business addresses the risks of COVID-19, recognising it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of the virus.

As always — and this is unchanged during the current crisis — employers have a duty to consult employees on health and safety. Involving staff in making decisions shows that you take their health and safety seriously. You could also consider any advice that has been produced specifically for your sector, eg by trade associations or trades unions.

If you are an employer with fewer than five workers, or are self-employed, you don’t have to write anything down as part of your risk assessment.

Controlling the risks

Employers have a duty to reduce the risks associated with COVID-19 to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures. This means the following.

  • Businesses and workplaces should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option.

  • Where working from home is not possible, workplaces should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the Government (keeping people 2m apart wherever possible).

  • Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.

  • In every workplace, increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning is important. Further mitigating actions include:

    • keeping the activity time involved as short as possible

    • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other

    • using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible

    • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using “fixed teams or partnering” (so each person works with only a few others).

  • Finally, if people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then you will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment.

  • In your assessment, you should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. See Who should go to work? below.

Sharing the results of your risk assessment

As mentioned above, it is imperative to carry out an assessment of the risks posed by COVID-19 in your workplace as soon as possible. You should also share the results of the risk assessment with your workforce. If possible, consider publishing the results on your website (and all employers with over 50 workers must do this).

Employers should display this notice in the office to show they have followed Government guidance.

Who should go to work?

The key objective in this regard is that everyone should work from home, unless they cannot do so.

  • Staff needed on site may, for example, include workers in roles critical for business and operational continuity, eg for safe facility management, or workers in critical roles which might be performed remotely but who are unable to work remotely due to home circumstances or the unavailability of safe enabling equipment.

  • Employers will also need to take steps to protect clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable workers. These groups include those with cancer, those aged 70 or over or with certain underlying health conditions as outlined in the Appendix to the latest guidance. Some of these people are strongly advised not to work outside the home whereas others may be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles enabling them to stay 2m away from others.

  • Another group of office workers to consider is those who need to self-isolate because they have symptoms of COVID-19 or live in a household with someone who has symptoms. Here employers will need to enable staff to work from home while self-isolating if appropriate.

For those working from home, it will be important for employers to monitor their wellbeing and help them stay connected to the rest of the workforce, as well as provide equipment for them to work at home safely and effectively.

Further points about social distancing in the office

Social distancing of 2m wherever possible applies to all parts of a business, not just the place where people spend most of their time, but also entrances and exits, travelling between sites, break rooms, canteens and similar settings. These are often the most challenging areas to maintain social distancing.

Here the new guidance offers some practical tips including the following.

  • Ensure handwashing on arrival.

  • Use floor tape — eg in lifts and for workstation layouts — to help workers keep a 2m distance apart.

  • Manage occupancy levels and stagger start and end times.

  • Avoid hot desking and where this is not possible, such as in call centres, clean workstations and shared equipment between different occupants.

  • Reduce transmission risks associated with face-to-face meeting by using remote working tools. Hold face-to-face meetings only when absolutely necessary and then use hand sanitiser, well ventilated rooms, avoid pen and equipment sharing and use floor signage or tape on tabletops to help office workers maintain social distancing.

  • Encourage workers to bring their own food or provide packaged meals instead of fully opening staff canteens.

  • In an emergency such as a fire or accident, people do not have to stay 2m apart if this would be unsafe, but those providing assistance should pay particular attention to sanitation and handwashing immediately after any incident.

  • Office managers will also need to minimise the number of unnecessary visits to the office by customers, visitors and contractors.

  • Cleaning and social distancing guidelines for toilets and washrooms will be important. Organisations could look at blocking sinks to ensure staff are kept apart when washing hands.

Cleaning the office

The aim is to make sure that any office that has been closed or partially operated is clean and ready to restart. The Government has published guidance on cleaning ordinary, non-healthcare workplaces.

The new guidance for offices emphasises the need for the following.

  • An assessment for all sites, or parts of sites, that have been closed, before restarting work.

  • New cleaning procedures, with frequent cleaning of work areas and equipment between uses, and providing hand sanitiser before restarting work.

  • Signs and posters to build awareness of good handwashing techniques, the need to increase handwashing frequency, avoid touching your face and to cough or sneeze into a tissue which is binned safely, or into your arm if a tissue is not available.

  • If you are cleaning the office after a known or suspected case of COVID-19, then you should refer to the specific guidance on this.

Face coverings — optional in offices

The Department of Health and Social Care recently updated its advice on face coverings, suggesting the public should consider using them in enclosed spaces, for example on public transport such as on trains, buses and metro systems, and in shops to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

However, the statement added that they do not need to be worn outdoors, while exercising or in workplaces such as offices and retail spaces.

It’s also important to note that face coverings are not the same as face masks such as surgical masks or respirators. Nor are face coverings the same as the personal protective equipment (PPE) used in industrial settings where dangerous dusts or sprays are present.

The public is being asked not to purchase surgical masks or respirators but leave these for healthcare workers working in environments where the risk is greatest.

Instead the public is encouraged to make face coverings at home, using scarves or other textile items that many will already own.

Therefore, the new guidance on working safely in offices emphasises that face coverings are optional in the office and are not required by law.

If staff do choose to wear a face covering, it is important to use these properly and wash hands before putting them on and taking them off.

Employers should support their workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one. This means communicating the following information to employees.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on, and after removing it.

  • When wearing a face covering, avoid touching your face or face covering, as you could contaminate them with germs from your hands.

  • Change your face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it.

  • Continue to wash your hands regularly.

  • Change and wash your face covering daily.

  • If the material is washable, wash in line with manufacturer’s instructions. If it’s not washable, dispose of it carefully in your usual waste.

  • Practise social distancing wherever possible.

Some final points about working safely in offices

  • Arrange work to reduce the number of contacts each employee has, eg where staff are split into teams or shift groups, fix these teams or shift groups so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people.

  • Identify areas where people directly pass things to each other, eg office supplies, and use drop-off points or transfer zones instead.

  • Avoid unnecessary work travel and keep people safe when they do need to travel between locations.

  • Communicate: make sure all workers understand COVID-19-related safety procedures in the new style office working environment and keep them up to date with how measures are being implemented or updated.

  • Maintain social distancing and avoid surface transmission when goods enter and leave the site.

The new guidance on offices, contact centres and other similar environments, recently published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will be updated over time — check for updates via this link.

The guidance also lists three ways in which employees can raise concerns about working safely in offices — namely through their employee representative, their trade union (if they have one) or the Health and Safety Executive (via an online enquiry form or by phone: 0300 790 6787).

Of course, many businesses operate more than one type of workplace, such as an office, factory and fleet of vehicles and so employers may need to use more than one of the recently published guides. Further information can also be accessed via the Government’s website.

Last reviewed 18 May 2020