Last reviewed 22 December 2020

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

In order to support employers establish ways of working to minimise the spread of the virus, the national Governments have issued guidance documents on working safely during coronavirus, covering different types of work — these are reviewed every two weeks and updated where necessary. These are the links for the different national Government Guidance for retail:

Although this guidance is specifically for the retail sector, much of the advice applies across all work sectors, so this feature will concentrate on the advice specifically directed at those who work in or run shops, branches, stores or similar environments.

Note: Some retail type businesses also (such as hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tattooists, sports and massage therapists, dress fitters, tailors and fashion designers) come under the Government guidance Working Safely in Close Contact Services.

Each employer is required to carry out their own risk assessment and based on this, implement controls, so the Government guidance highlights that shops, branches, stores, etc are responsible for clearly communicating the guidelines to workers and customers, taking into account some may have particular needs (eg visually impaired, English not first language).

Keeping staff and visitors safe

The Government has identified seven priority actions for businesses, as follows.

  1. Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment.

  2. Clean more often.

  3. Make sure your employees/visitors/contractors wear face coverings.

  4. Encourage customers to wear face coverings.

  5. Make sure everyone is social distancing.

  6. Increase ventilation, keeping doors and windows open where possible..

  7. Send people with Covid-19 symptoms home (whether staff, contractors, visitors or customers). Ensure that anyone who is required to self-isolate is not knowingly required or encouraged to come to work.

If your business is a shop or branch, there are four more issues for employers to consider.

  • Reduce crowding.

  • Help your staff maintain social distancing.

  • Limit the handling of goods and clean stock regularly.

  • Communicate to customers and staff and train staff on safety measures.

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.

The Government guidance emphasises that shops, branches, stores, etc are responsible for clearly communicating the guidelines to workers and customers.

The risk assessment should consider whether there is increased risk (and therefore the need for additional controls) for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (or those who live with clinically extremely vulnerable individuals) or those who are at higher risk of infection and/or of adverse outcome if infected. The guidance to the clinically extremely vulnerable about attending the workplace depends on the tier allocated to the local area — in tier 3 (very high alert) extremely vulnerable individuals are strongly advised to work from home, but can still attend work if they cannot work from home, while in tier 4 they should not go to work even if they cannot work from home..

Workers should be consulted during the risk assessment process and about the risk controls implemented at the end of the risk assessment process, including the timing and phasing of return to work.

If a local Public Health England (PHE) — or equivalent in other nations — declares a local outbreak, you must comply with the local outbreak management rules.

If there is more than one Covid-19 case associated with your premises, you must contact the local PHE team (or equivalent) to report it. PHE has produced workplace action cards providing guidance for shops and branches in the event of this situation; these are downloadable from the PHE website.

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: Transmission between people within the premises

Controls considered should include the following.

  • Reduce worker attendance at the shop/branch — the more people at the premises, the more difficult it may be to comply with social distancing guidance, although there are also risks associated with lone working. Employers will need to update their risk assessment to reflect the numbers of employees on site.

  • Ensure employees do not come to work and customers do not attend the premises 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. They must not be allowed to work if they have been contacted by NHS test and trace and instructed to self-isolate.

  • Increase ventilation — there is evidence that improving general ventilation reduces the risk of airborne transmission, so ventilation through the premises should be optimised:

    • leaving doors and/or windows open

    • using ventilation systems working at full power, regardless of reduced occupancy (and ensuring they have been maintained correctly).

  • 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)

    • encouraging workers who are employed in shopping centres to use the pedestrian routes provided for members of the public rather than service corridors (depending on the dimensions of the service corridors)

    • reminding people of the social distancing guidelines using posters/floor markings

    • limiting the number of members of the public entering the premises and possibly encouraging them to shop alone

    • 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, for example, limiting the use of lifts either to those with disabilities or by numbers who can use them at any time

    • identify how many people are allowed in stock rooms/amenity areas (this includes employees, delivery workers), for example, by staggering break times

    • rethinking how customer assistance is provided, eg having fixed pairs of colleagues to carry heavy objects rather than a single colleague lifting with customer; if customer assistance cannot be provided without contravening social distancing guidelines, then this customer service should be suspended or limited.

    Social distancing is now set at 2m, although 1m is allowed where risk mitigation (eg minimising time, increasing handwashing, screens) is implemented. 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.

  • Enforce the use of face coverings by workers — (unless they are exempt) in areas that are open to the public (eg not stock rooms) as they are required to wear them by law, unless they are exempt. Since face coverings are required by law, it is the employer’s duty to provide them as part of their duty of care free of charge, but workers can choose to wear their own face coverings.

  • Encourage customers to wear face coverings — by displaying posters, etc. Customers are required to wear face coverings by law, but businesses are only required to take reasonable steps to encourage compliance. Although face coverings are now mandatory for members of the public (unless they are exempt for health, age or equality reasons) in shops and branches, they can be removed for identification, or when people they are speaking to require the opportunity to lip read or to hear clear sound.

  • Erect partitions — effective barriers or partitions erected between workers and members of the public (for example, at cash desks) are a robust control. UK Government Guidance for shops and branches states that workers behind an effective barrier or screen do not need to wear face coverings.

  • “Close” working — in some situations it may not be possible to comply with social distancing rules such as when measuring a customer for fitted clothing or moving furniture. If close working is required, then additional control should be implemented, eg minimising the close working time as far as possible, increasing handwashing/sanitising frequency, using back-to-back or side-to-side working, using regular partners for close working.

  • 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.

  • Limit background noise — this includes playing music or broadcasts at a volume that encourages people to shout.

The hazard: Contact with contaminated surfaces

Controls considered should include the following.

  • Provide hand sanitiser or handwashing facilities on entry to the premises — and encourage customers to use it.

  • 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 and extra bins in which to dispose of face coverings and cleaning materials. 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.

  • Use of fitting rooms — if fitting rooms remain open, they should be cleared of superfluous items and they will need to be sanitised between each use. Guidance suggests fitting rooms should only be opened for essential use (such as critical protective clothing). 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. Protective covers can be placed over some goods (such as furniture), to allow customers to test them.They can then be cleaned immediately afterwards. The Government has removed its previous advice to quarantine returned goods for 48 hours in the latest version of the guidance.

  • Toilets — should be kept open to allow for handwashing and be carefully cleaned and managed.

  • Canteens — staff canteens and restaurants must be kept clean and numbers of people in the area minimised to reduce the risk of transmission. Handwashing facilities or sanitiser should be available at the entrance to the canteen area and any food served or displayed should be individually wrapped to avoid the spread of infection. Any frequently touched surfaces in canteens should be cleaned frequently, eg table tops, door handles, drinks levers.

The hazard: Potentially infected people mixing with others and increasing the risk of transmission

  • Create and display a QR code — (available at https://www.gov.uk/create-coronavirus-qr-poster) at each shop or branch and encourage customers to scan it when they enter (eg display it at the entrance) so that they can take part in NHS Test and Trace. Staff canteens do not need to display a QR code.

  • Log and keep staff shift patterns — for 21 days so that you can assist NHS Test and Trace if requested.

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.