Grainne Kelly summarises the Government guidance to help those who run and work in shops and branches understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the recent easing of lockdown, the Government is now encouraging employers and employees who cannot do their jobs from home to return to work. Most retail premises are currently required to remain closed under legislation, but there are plans to allow phased opening.

In order to support employers establish ways of working to minimise the spread of the virus, the Government has issued guidance documents on working safely during coronavirus, covering different types of work.

One has been issued for people who work in or run shops, branches, stores or similar environments. Much of the advice applies across all sectors (see 5 safe working principles for a “COVID-19 secure” business), so this feature will concentrate on the advice specifically directed at those who work in or run shops, branches, stores or similar environments.

Risk assessments

Regardless of what sector your organisation operates in, all guidance requires employers or the self-employed to complete risk assessments. See the feature Risk management for COVID-19: the new normal for advice on how to assess and control the risks of a return to the workplace.

Hazards and risk controls for shops and branches

The following are the common hazards and controls identified for this type of working environment.

The hazard: Airborne transmission between people within the premises

Controls considered should include the following.

  • Reduce worker attendance at the shop/branch — there is a balance between the risk of transmission and lone working, but it is likely that retail premises will have relatively few customers when they are initially allowed to open. The more people at the premises, the more difficult it may be to comply with social distancing guidance, so employers may want to take advantage of the Government's furlough scheme and have only a portion of staff working initially.

  • Ensure employees do not come to work if they may be infected — workers should clearly understand what the procedures are if they become ill, and what symptoms need to be reported and acted upon. They must be encouraged to self-isolate if they exhibit the symptoms of the coronavirus or someone they are living with has the symptoms. Consider whether HR policies can/need to be adjusted to support employees who are off sick to discourage presenteeism. Employers could display posters reminding employees of the symptoms and the action to take.

  • Increase ventilation — there is evidence that improving general ventilation reduces the risk of airborne transmission, so it is worth considering whether doors and/or windows can be left open to increase airflow. Make sure any ventilation systems are working at full power, regardless of reduced occupancy.

  • Social distancing — employees, contractors, delivery personnel and members of the public should be encouraged to follow social distancing guidelines. Controls may include:

    • marking a one-way system in the premises (especially if there is more than one entrance/exit)

    • reminding people of the social distancing guidelines using posters

    • limiting the number of members of the public entering the premises

    • restricting access to certain areas

    • discouraging non-essential movement within buildings and between sites and encouraging instead the use of radios or telephones (cleaned after use)

    • considering how you will manage lifts or stairs on the property

    • rethinking how customer assistance is provided, eg having fixed pairs of colleagues to carry heavy objects rather than a single colleague lifting with customer.

    Additionally, depending on the nature of the shop or branch, it may be necessary to remind members of the public that it is their responsibility to ensure any children under their control follow social distancing guidelines.

  • “Close” working — in some situations it may not be possible to comply with social distancing rules such as at cash or service desks. Employers or the self-employed should first consider erecting partitions; if this is not possible, then the use of face coverings could be considered, although take account of human behaviour (such as pulling down the covering to speak) rendering these pretty much useless.

  • Discourage members of the public from standing in specific areas — there are areas of retail premises that workers need to access regularly, such as stock rooms or back of house. It may be worth moving stock away from these routes or marking the floor area to discourage members of the public from standing there, to reduce the risk of accidental close contact.

The hazard: Contact with contaminated surfaces

Controls considered should include the following.

  • Frequent cleaning of commonly used surfaces — this may include door handles/push plates, stair handrails, lift control buttons, cash desks, self-checkouts, trolleys, coffee machines, and handheld devices. The properties of the cleaning chemicals used should be checked to ensure they provide adequate sanitisation. Establish regular cleaning schedules that focus on these surfaces. Provide wipes and cleaning equipment so that employees can also disinfect items themselves. Organisations should also know what is required in terms of cleaning after a known or suspected case of COVID-19.

  • Rules for contact with goods — workers should be provided with and instructed to use disposable gloves when moving goods from the stock room to the shop/branch (they should dispose of them after single use) and customers should be encouraged to touch only goods they intend to purchase. If possible, look to provide hand sanitisers and increased handwashing facilities for staff and customers.

  • Use of fitting rooms — if fitting rooms remain open, they will need to be sanitised between each use. Many businesses are closing fitting rooms and modifying their returns policies to allow people to buy and try on clothing at home.

  • Dealing with goods delivered to site/returned by customers — where possible, put in place "no contact" picking-up and dropping-off points that do not require physical handover of goods. Establish staggered times for deliveries and customers, with a queuing system that keeps people 2m apart. Encourage contactless refunds and have procedures for dealing with large items. You will probably need to revise signage and markings. If possible, encourage drivers to stay in their vehicles where this does not compromise their safety and existing safe working practice.

Conclusion

Estimates of when the pandemic will be over vary widely, so it is likely retail businesses will have to identify and enforce risk controls over a lengthy period of time. Employers are legally responsible for identifying, implementing and maintaining these controls and keeping their risk assessments up to date as our understanding of COVID-19 transmission and the Government guidance changes.

Last reviewed 22 May 2020