Last reviewed 4 August 2021

The UK Government has published a set of guidance documents to assist a range of workplaces to establish safe operations. Dr Lisa Bushby considers the latest official advice given to offices, factories, laboratories and similar indoor environments.

The Government has been reviewing its Covid Secure guides throughout the pandemic, and has made regular updates to its guidance on restarting operations and keeping employees and others safe in workplaces. The Covid Secure guide for England relating to indoor labs, research facilities and similar environments, such as engineering centres, wet labs and clean rooms, analytical testing facilities and prototyping centres has recently been incorporated into a single document with working in offices and factories. The devolved administrations have their own guidance, see Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Offices, factories and laboratories typically require on-site collaboration between employees, often in close proximity, and the frequent handling of common items, such as chemicals, tools, equipment and machinery. Flexibility of both shifts and floor layouts may be limited and there is often a high use of multiple-use items, not all of which can be washed down. These features mean specific measures must be adopted to keep employees and others safe during the pandemic.

Before returning to the workplace, organisations will need to review general health and safety control measures and equipment.

There may be additional pressures on resources for lab managers to deal with before work can be safely restarted, including gas lines, liquid nitrogen, molecular reagents and personal protective equipment (PPE). These are likely to be in high demand and short supply.

Priority actions for organisations

The guidance begins with setting out six priority actions.

  1. Complete a health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk from Covid-19. Covid-19 can be managed in the same way as other workplace hazards, ie by completing a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks of Covid-19 in the workplace and identifying control measures to manage that risk. The usual rules around risk assessment apply (recording the findings for workplaces with more than five workers, consulting with employees and sharing the results)..

  2. Provide adequate ventilation. When someone with Covid-19 breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, they release particles (droplets and aerosols) containing the virus that causes Covid-19. These particles can be breathed in by another person. As the main way of spreading Covid-19 is through close contact with an infected person, by opening windows, doors and vents, mechanical ventilation using fans and ducts, or a combination of both the concentration of particles in the air is diluted.

  3. Clean more often. Advise workers to wash their hands or use hand sanitiser frequently. This is particularly important before and after touching shared objects or surfaces that other people touch regularly.   Equally, maintain regular cleaning of surfaces, particularly those that people touch frequently.

  4. Turn away people with Covid-19 symptoms. Ensure workers and others who feel unwell stay at home and do not attend the venue. By law, businesses must not allow a self-isolating worker to come to work.

  5. Enable people to check in at the premises, eg by displaying a QR code, even if this is no longer a legal requirement.

  6. Communicate and train: keep employees and others up to date on which safety measures are being used and how they are being kept up to date.

Examples of control measures with which offices, factories and labs, etc can help keep employees safe include the following.

  • Work with the same team every day. Use fixed teams or shift patterns to reduce the number of people each person comes into contact with.

  • Reduce crowding. Consider how many people can be in each space while remaining socially distant. Use fixed teams or have staff book rooms or labs to avoid overcrowding.

  • Arrange workspaces to keep staff apart. Consider using barriers between workstations and introduce back-to-back or side-to-side working.

Note:

Covid secure measures should continue even if employees have recently tested negative or had the vaccine.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE such as safety helmets, gloves, eye protection, high visibility clothing, safety footwear and safety harnesses is used extensively as a control measure in many lab and research facilities. It also includes respiratory protective equipment, such as face masks. The message from the Government is that if PPE is used to ensure protection against non-Covid-19 risks, it should continue to be used.

Organisations could provide extra non-recycling bins for workers and visitors to dispose of single use face coverings and PPE.

If staff are using PPE at work to protect against risks other than coronavirus, they can throw it away in the usual way.

Staff should be advised to remove PPE, including any face coverings carefully, and avoid touching the face. After removing PPE, wash hands or use hand sanitiser.

Returning to the workplace

While social distancing had been at the forefront of efforts to manage the Covid-19 outbreak, the Government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, so employers can start to plan a return to workplaces.

Organisations should remain responsive to workers’ needs, particularly when not every adult has been offered two vaccine doses. While being mindful of ensuring that no one is discriminated against, consideration should be given to the particular needs of different groups or individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19, those facing mental and physical health difficulties and, while clinically extremely vulnerable people are no longer advised to shield, employers should support these staff by discussing their individual needs and supporting them in taking any additional precautions advised by their clinicians.

Anyone with symptoms of Covid-19, as well as those who live in a household or are in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms, and those who are advised to self-isolate as part of the NHS Test and Trace program, must stay at home. Employers must not knowingly require or encourage someone who is being required to self-isolate to come to work.

Any workers who have symptoms of Covid-19, ie a high temperature, new and persistent cough or anosmia (loss or changed sense of smell or taste), however mild, should self-isolate for at least 10 days from when the symptoms started. Workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 should self-isolate for at least 10 days starting from the day the test was taken. Where a worker has tested positive while not experiencing symptoms but develops symptoms during the isolation period, they should restart the 10-day isolation period from the day the symptoms developed.

Employers should also ensure that any workers who are contacts of individuals who test positive for Covid-19 self isolate for 10 days.

Working from home

If some staff continue to work from home, managers should check on their wellbeing and help them stay connected to the rest of the workforce, especially if the majority of their colleagues are on-site.

Those working from home should also be provided with equipment to enable them to work safely and effectively, eg with remote access to work systems.

Social distancing in the workplace

Reducing building occupancy and establishing social distancing as far as is practicable within buildings and rooms is an effective control measure against the risk of Covid-19.

Lab-type facilities generally need workers to share workstations and equipment. While dealing with Covid-19, however, if they need to be shared, they should be shared by the smallest possible number of people. Social distancing in workplaces may be achieved through a number of routes, such as through the demarcation of work zones by using floor tape or paint to help people maintain a distance, staggering workdays, keeping the activity time involved as short as possible, effective shift working, etc.

While accepting the limitations of some workplaces, organisations may also consider the following measures to establish suitably distanced work zones.

  • One person, one workbench or desk.

  • Where it is not possible to maintain distances, introduce screens or barriers between workbenches or specific pieces of equipment or machinery.

  • Where it is not possible to organise equipment and benches so they are further apart, arrange that employees work back-to-back or side-to-side rather than face-to-face.

  • Encourage use of radios/walkie talkies/telephones (where permitted) for employees to communicate critical information across the room/building and discourage shouting.

  • Reduce the number of people who work in the same area by establishing fixed teams or partnering. As far as possible, where people are split into teams or shift groups, fix these teams or shift groups so that, where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same limited number of people.

  • A temporary record of staff shift patterns could be kept for 21 days to assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for data, if needed. In addition, a single point of contact to lead on contacting local public health teams in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak should be assigned. If there is more than one case of Covid-19 associated with the workplace, it should be reported to the local PHE health protection team as a suspected outbreak.

  • Identify areas where people have to directly pass things to each other, for example, analyte, equipment, control units, and find ways to remove direct contact, such as using put-down-pick-up processes.

  • Stagger break times and make outside areas available for breaks (encourage employees to bring their own food).

  • Create additional space by using other parts of the worksite that have been freed up by remote working.

  • Introduce a one-way flow through the workplace, paying particular attention to long corridors.

  • Use visual communications, eg whiteboards or signage, to explain changes to schedules, breakdowns or materials shortages, to reduce the need for face-to-face communications.

Supervisors must remain vigilant of the need to balance distancing while avoiding lone working; also to ensure that work is being carried out safely to all relevant regulatory requirements that might be affected by distancing. Certain high-risk work, for instance, requires at least two persons working together. This includes work in a confined space or work with fumigation. Pairs of people should be fixed to reduce the number of people workers have to be in direct contact with.

People involved in the provision of assistance to others should pay particular attention to sanitation measures immediately afterwards, including washing hands.

Air and ventilation

Ventilation should be used as a control measure to reduce the risk of aerosol transmission of Covid-19 in enclosed spaces. The risk of transmission is greater in spaces that are poorly ventilated.

Poorly ventilated areas may be identified by:

  • looking for areas where people work and where there is no mechanical ventilation or natural ventilation such as open windows, doors or vents

  • checking that mechanical systems provide outdoor air, temperature control or both. If a system only recirculates air and has no outdoor air supply, the area is likely to be poorly ventilated

  • areas that feel stuffy or smell bad

  • using carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors (monitors are less effective in areas used by few people) — a build-up of CO2 in an area (>800ppm) can indicate that ventilation needs improving.

There are different ways of providing ventilation, including mechanical ventilation using fans and ducts, natural ventilation which relies on passive flow through openings (doors, windows, vents) or a combination of the two. Note that ventilation will not reduce the risk of droplet or surface transmission, so other control measures such as cleaning and social distancing are also required.

Before restarting operations, mechanical ventilation systems (including air conditioning systems) may need to be serviced or adjusted so they do not automatically reduce ventilation levels as a result of lower than normal occupancy levels. Positive pressure systems and extractors can operate as normal.

Mechanical ventilation brings fresh air from outside into a building and should be maintained in line with manufacturers’ instructions. They will provide adequate ventilation if they are set to maximise fresh air and minimise recirculation.

  • Do not lower mechanical ventilation rates if the number of people reduces in an area temporarily, but base ventilation rates on the maximum “normal” occupancy of an area.

  • Determine if the system draws in fresh air, and if it provides adequate ventilation. It may be necessary to increase the rate or supplement with natural ventilation (opening doors, windows and air vents) where possible.

  • Consider extending the operating times of mechanical ventilation systems to before and after people use work areas.

It is preferable not to recirculate air from one space to another. Where it is not possible to provide adequate ventilation through the measures above, it is possible to use local air cleaning and filtration units, such as high-efficiency filters or ultraviolet-based devices, to reduce airborne transmission of aerosols.

Any unit should be appropriate for the size of the area they are used in to ensure they work in the way they are intended to. This is because filtration units remove contaminants (such as coronavirus) from the air but do not remove CO2.

Legionella

If the premises have been unoccupied for a period during any lockdown, organisations are required to control the risks of legionella bacteria by introducing appropriate measures, such as identifying whether conditions will encourage bacteria to multiply, and taking appropriate steps prior to reopening, such as:

  • flushing through simple hot/cold water systems with fresh mains water for several minutes

  • increasing the temperature of hot water systems to above 60°C if possible and drawing it through to all hot water outlets

  • flushing through larger hot/cold water systems (including those with tanks, showers, calorifiers, etc) for a significant period of time

  • ensuring that the system is capable of delivering water at safe temperatures by checking temperatures ahead of reopening

  • undertaking a chemical or thermal disinfection of the water system

  • undertaking microbiological sampling for Legionella bacteria.

Clean surfaces

Cleaning protocols may need to be reviewed, with particular attention paid to increasing the frequency of handwashing (especially when employees arrive and before they depart the facilities, ie providing wash stations at entry and exit points to the building and individual labs), surface cleaning and the cleaning of common spaces.

While not all equipment and tools can be washed down, additional measures managers could introduce to ensure surfaces remain clean, include:

  • providing hand sanitiser where handwashing facilities are not available

  • removing access controls on low category labs, for example, so employees don't need to use touch cards/keys and consider the security implications of any decisions and control measures put in place to manage the Covid-19 risk, as any revisions could present new or altered security risks that may require additional mitigation

  • limiting use of high-touch items such as shared display screen equipment, testing equipment, chemicals, apparatus and machinery

  • increasing provision of tools and supplies so workers don't have to share items

  • washing lab clothing and equipment such as goggles and gloves on site rather than at home

  • requesting staff change into work clothing and equipment on site using appropriate facilities/changing areas

  • encouraging storage of personal items and clothing in personal storage spaces, such as lockers.

Any additional waste created as a result of extra cleaning may be disposed of in the usual way.

Workplace testing

Where testing on-site is provided it is essential that workplace testing is carried out in a safe manner and in an appropriate setting.

Anyone in England can now get regular rapid lateral flow tests without having symptoms while free PCR tests are available for anyone displaying symptoms.

Communication and consultation with employees

Checklists are invaluable. Informing staff of the new guidelines should be done with simple, clear messaging, using visual communications wherever possible.

  • Provide clear, consistent and regular communication to improve understanding and consistency of ways of working.

  • Engage with workers and their representatives to explain and agree any changes in working arrangements.

  • Develop communication and training materials for workers prior to returning to site, especially around new procedures for arrival at work.

Risk assessment results must be shared with employees, preferably by publishing the results on the company website (all businesses with over 50 workers are expected to do this).

All managers are expected to demonstrate to workers and visitors that they have properly assessed their risk and taken appropriate measures to mitigate the risks from Covid, this could be done by displaying a notification in a prominent place in the lab and on the company website.

Visitor and contractor safety

Encourage visits via remote connection where this is an option, and in other cases, limit the number of visitors at any one time and co-ordinate with other site users.

Inform visitors that they should be prepared to remove face coverings if asked to do so by police officers and staff for the purposes of identification.

Conclusion

There will inevitably be a range of challenges related to indoor work in the age of Covid, but while the safety and wellbeing of staff will always have to be prioritised over the need and desire to work, by taking a pragmatic approach to these challenges we can continue to experiment, prototype, build and innovate safely.

The Government's guidance for people who work in or run offices, factories and labs can be found at GOV.UK.