In its COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, the Government said that it wanted to begin a gradual return to work in England. While anyone able to work from home should continue to do so, it insisted, those who needed to be at their place of work should be looking to return as soon as employers confirmed it was safe to do so. However, the guidance continued, what these returners should not do is overload public transport.

While transport operators no doubt recognised this as excellent advice, they were left with the problem of how to prepare their own staff and facilities for a limited increase in use and what steps they needed to take if demand proved higher than the Government was expecting. Fortunately, further specific advice was issued by the Department for Transport (DfT), so we are now able to put together a plan of action based on this more detailed guidance.

Safer transport guidance

The DfT makes clear that its guidance is intended to be complementary to any obligations already placed on the operator by health and safety and employment legislation. “Safer working principles and risk assessment for transport operators and organisations” also emphasises that each transport provider will need to translate the key points and examples it sets out into specific actions. With that proviso in mind, what are the principles on which operators should base their planning?

Assess the risk

Given that other areas will have been previously examined in light of the usual health and safety rules mentioned above, the most important task for operators in the current circumstances is to address the risks that COVID-19 presents in a transport setting, to both passengers and staff.

In this context, it is sensible to apply the principles of prevention set out in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, namely:

  • avoid risks where possible

  • evaluate the risks which cannot be avoided

  • combat the risks at source

  • adapt to technical progress

  • replace the dangerous by the non-dangerous or the less dangerous

  • develop a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors relating to the working environment

  • give collective protective measures priority over individual protective measures

  • give appropriate instructions to employees.

On this last point, it would of course be sensible to consult with workers, or their representatives, on any planned changes to working practices. Operators should also examine whether such changes might result in additional, different risks or non-compliance with other requirements (for example health and safety or equalities legislation).

Finally, they must bear in mind that they still have a duty to consider the needs of those with protected characteristics — disabled people, for example, the elderly and pregnant women — and to ensure that they are able to access transport networks.

Protecting the workforce

Even before considering the impact of increased passenger flows, operators need to plan for the safety of their employees. This will involve consideration of how and when people arrive at and leave the workplace and how their daily tasks are organised. Operators should:

  • stagger arrival and departure times to reduce crowding on routes to and from the workplace

  • consider opening further entry points to reduce the possibility of congestion

  • follow the example of supermarkets and use floor markings and directional signs to reinforce the message about social distancing

  • provide hand sanitisers at entry points and where possible reduce the need to touch security features such as keypads (perhaps by showing a pass)

  • consider the introduction of a shift system to keep numbers at work to a minimum

  • stagger break times and consider using packaged meals to avoid opening canteens

  • use posters and announcements to emphasise a zero tolerance approach to abuse of staff

  • limit use of high-touch items and shared office equipment such as printers and whiteboards

  • ensure work vehicles such as minibuses have enough empty seats to ensure social distancing

  • take account of workers using alternative forms of transport to get to work by, for example, providing cycle storage areas.

Protecting passengers

The key to passenger safety is to consider how they enter, use and exit any facilities, buildings or vehicles. This will confirm potential pinch-points and enable operators to identify where problems can be alleviated by, for example, the use of signs, floor markings, barriers and screens. They should consider:

  • displaying messages and making announcements to discourage non-essential trips and to emphasise the Government’s policy that wherever possible people should work from home

  • using social media to make passengers aware of what to expect on their journeys and encouraging them to use face coverings

  • promoting online ticket purchase and encouraging travel outside peak times

  • working with other transport organisations (at transport interchanges, for example) to ensure co-ordinated policy

  • taking account of the possibility of wet weather and considering how this will affect passenger behaviour

  • introducing the use of social distancing marshals

  • ensuring that all parts of the facility are subject to safety signs and social distancing measures including car parks, stair cases and toilets

  • paying particular attention to areas where queuing is likely and introducing measures to ensure social distancing, perhaps by moving to more spacious areas or by restricting access

  • looking at all of the above in the context of an emergency situation arising and planning accordingly.

Staying safe

The general requirement that people maintain social distancing applies across all forms of public transport but it is clear that transport staff and passengers will, on occasion, find it difficult to stay two metres apart. Employers should therefore:

  • advise staff and passengers on ways of working to keep their distance from other people as much as possible

  • establish clear rules for interacting with passengers

  • reinforce the rules on regular handwashing or cleaning

  • identify areas that are touched more regularly and ensure thorough cleaning (although regular cleaning of all areas is required)

  • support individual workers who choose to use face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible (but emphasise the necessity for handwashing before and after use)

  • where problem areas arise, try to minimise the time where close contact occurs

  • where more than one member of staff is needed for a particular task, try to ensure that teams are kept as small as possible and that the same people are kept in the teams (so-called cohorting) to keep contact as limited as possible

  • use screens or barriers and eliminate face-to-face seating by, for example, shifting to “bench” style

  • if possible, separate workspaces two metres apart from one another

  • wherever possible ensure natural ventilation or use Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems to improve ventilation.

Advertising compliance

There is a Government poster, Staying COVID-19 Secure in 2020, which operators may want to download and display to demonstrate that they are complying with official guidance. It also offers a useful reminder of the key methods of mitigating the risk of transmission.

  • Encourage people to work from home if possible.

  • Introduce rigorous cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures.

  • Maintain a two metre distance in the workplace.

Last reviewed 14 May 2020