Last reviewed 26 March 2021

A summary of government guidance for employers in England on how workplaces can remain Covid-19 secure.

This Part 1 article focuses on ensuring the workplace is safe for employees who are returning to work.. You are advised to take advice on your specific sector. Part 2 of our “Re-opening the workplace after lockdown” article provides employers with an overview of HR considerations involved in returning to work.

Respective Governments in England, Scotland and Wales have set out plans for lifting Covid-19 restrictions and permitting businesses to re-open.

As the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, business recovery will be paramount. Employers face many decisions around assessing business operations, bringing employees back to work, and ensuring the workplace is safe.

The principal challenge which should be factored into all decisions will be ensuring that workers have full confidence that their health will be protected.

This guidance has been prepared to help employers manage the “return to work” process.

Employers may be able to rely on, or learn from, procedures put in place during previous re-opening exercises when restrictions were eased.

Thinking about risk

All employers should carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment to assess and manage the risks of Covid-19. Previous assessments to cover previous re-open exercises should be revisited. The objective of this is to identify sensible measures to control the risk in the workplace.

It is vital that you establish whether there are adequate safeguards in place to reduce the risk of employees contracting the virus, particularly those employees who may be particularly vulnerable to contacting the virus (eg employees with pre-existing health issues, older employees, employees who are pregnant).

You also need to revisit existing risk assessments to ensure they remain suitable and sufficient and have taken the new Covid measures or changes in occupancy into account. Consider legionella, fire safety, asbestos, equipment safety, electrical safety and first aid to start with.

Social distancing protocols

You will need to comply with all government directives on social distancing as your workplace reopens.

Staggering work hours and alternating days of work for different groups, shifts or teams of employees to reduce the number of employees on site may also be needed.

Below is a list of precautions that businesses may consider implementing:

  • reduce hot-desking

  • evaluate workplace layouts and consider making certain stairways and hallways one-way if social distancing guidelines cannot otherwise be met

  • use plexiglass shields, tables or other barriers to block airborne particles and ensure minimum distances in the workplace

  • develop protocols to ensure social distancing can be maintained in lifts

  • close or modify certain common areas, such as canteens, so that employees can socially distance, and use floor tape to mark appropriate distances

  • erect physical barriers and implement rules to limit sharing equipment and supplies, including pens. These rules might require you to be prepared with additional equipment and supplies before beginning to bring employees back onsite

  • provide hand sanitiser

  • consider changing latch-based door handles so doors open or close through use of an “electric eye” or with a push of the door, or a button or push pad, which may also assist with ongoing deep cleaning protocols

  • provide more car parking spaces to avoid colleagues giving each other lifts to work.

Who should go to work

Employees across Great Britain are still advised to work from home where possible despite the easing of other restrictions; further reviews on this will take place over coming months.

In all professions where homeworking is not possible, such as construction or retail, people should continue to attend their workplaces. With this in mind, employers should still consider who needs to be at work, planning for the minimum number of people needed at work to operate safely and effectively.

Where employees are working from home, their wellbeing should be monitored and they should be provided with the equipment they need.

Employers should protect those members of their workforce who are at higher risk, including those who have received a notification to shield. In this situation, employees should be offered the option of the safest available roles with social distancing.

What employee guidelines will be required?

Your employees must comply with prevailing social distancing rules in the workplace and guidelines should be prepared for distribution to staff.

Social distancing rules should be communicated electronically and/or in hardcopy at workstations and common areas. These materials should be easy to understand and available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all workers.

You may want to provide video training to returning employees to introduce them to any new workplace rules. Employees should acknowledge receipt of rules and training. Employers should train supervisors on how best to enforce social distancing rules. Employees may also be required to wash their hands at specified frequencies, following recommended practice.

New health and safety systems

There are certain logistical considerations you should consider when preparing for the physical return of your workforce.

You will need to consider what supplies may be needed to facilitate a smooth return to work, keeping in mind any issued government guidance.

For example, you should pre-order (taking shipping time into consideration) products including hand sanitiser, sanitising wipes, bottled water, face masks, gloves, etc. Special anti-bacterial cleaners may need to be ordered, and personal protective equipment (gowns, gloves, masks, visors) may be needed for any individuals who clean or remove waste.

You should consider what supplies will allow employees to minimise time spent in common areas. Additionally, individual workspaces should be prepared with necessary supplies to eliminate the need for employees congregating in a supply room.

You may want to implement a bring-your-own-refrigerated-lunchbox policy to limit use of common refrigerators.

You will need to determine if changes need to be made regarding first aid rooms or other rooms used if employees do not feel well to ensure strict compliance with thorough sanitisation protocols.

You may also have to consider adding additional hand washing stations.

You should prepare directional signage and other instructions for employees and visitors to avoid any confusion related to containment practices.

Since Monday 28 September 2020, workers in shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs have been required to wear face coverings.

Modifying the physical workplace

You should reduce movement of people within a building or site where possible and where practicable, introduce one-way systems on corridors and stairwells. You should assess whether certain workplace modifications are required to maintain social distancing and compliance with other government-issued guidelines, particularly for high traffic areas such as corridors, lifts and walkways. If returning a single department, unit or group is a priority, you need to consider whether you should implement new seating or work arrangements or if pairing is necessary.

Conduct a detailed evaluation of the physical workspace layout. If any employees work at stations that are within 2 metres of each other, make reassignments to different stations to ensure the minimum distancing — and for employees who work alongside each other on a regular basis, increase the gap to keep these workers 2 metres apart. If available space does not allow this much separation, evaluate options for staggering schedules as an alternative or, if employees must work within 2 metres of each other, you must show mitigating factors are in place to prevent the transmission risk such as screens, pairing systems or back to back working. Avoid sharing workstations and arrange for people to work side by side or facing away from each other, avoiding face-to-face working arrangements.

You should also consider whether furniture or work equipment can be reconfigured to facilitate social distancing. For example, removing tables and chairs in meeting, lunch or break rooms may facilitate social distancing. Pay special attention to areas where printers, copiers and other types of shared equipment are located, and consider moving the equipment or designating a single employee to operate that equipment, distribute print-outs, etc.

You might also consider locating different teams to a different area of the worksite; this may assist in providing backup in the event that any team member tests positive for the virus or reports a direct exposure event.

Cleaning or hygiene regimes

Government guidance requires you to carry out a cleaning procedure, particularly of sites or parts of sites that have been closed, prior to re-opening. Hand sanitiser should also be in place prior to re-opening. If there is a skeleton crew in the workplace, try to contain those employees to a specific area while this cleaning process is underway so that the occupied area can be cleaned immediately prior to additional employees returning. Food should be removed from common areas and kitchen or break areas.

Increased levels of cleaning and sanitising of frequently touched surfaces such as door handles is recommended and additional precautions are required if you are cleaning after a suspected or known case of Covid-19. Track and trace measures should be followed at all times. You should provide disinfectants throughout the workspace for employee use for wiping down surfaces.

Infection control practices

Infection control practices, such as regular hand washing, following proper coughing and sneezing etiquette, and proper tissue usage and disposal is prudent and, during a pandemic, a basic compliance requirement under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974. It is good practice to provide tissues throughout occupied work areas, with disposal receptacles so that employees can discard their used tissues personally and immediately. You should consider increasing the number of hand washing stations, and provide breaks as necessary for employees to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds.

Providing PPE to employees

Existing risk assessments may already identify the need for personal protective equipment for work purposes and this should continue to be used. You should not generally need additional PPE to reduce the risk of Covid-19 other than in clinical settings.

If an employee fails to bring the issued personal protective equipment several times over a relatively short time frame, you should document their behaviour and use your internal disciplinary procedures to ensure it doesn’t continue.

If required for your normal work activities, you will have to provide personal protective equipment to all relevant staff and ensure no one receives different treatment. This is documented in your risk assessment.

PPE already used for non-Covid-19 reasons should still be worn. The guidance states “Unless you are in a situation where the risk of Covid-19 transmission is very high, your risk assessment should reflect the fact that the role of PPE in providing additional protection is extremely limited. However, if your risk assessment does show that PPE is required, then you must provide this PPE free of charge to workers who need it. Any PPE provided must fit properly.”

Although the wearing of a face covering is not generally required by law in the workplace, employers should support their workers in using one if they choose to. This means telling workers to exercise care, including:

  • maintaining good hand hygiene before putting on a face covering and after taking it off

  • changing the face covering regularly, and always after it gets damp or if they touch it

  • since Monday 28 September 2020, workers in shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs have been required to wear face coverings.

Health and safety obligations

Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 to make sure they provide a safe workplace. You must make sure that the risk assessment for your business addresses the risks of Covid-19, and refresh it where necessary where you are not re-opening for the first time. You should only restart operations with safe, secure and sanitised workplaces to protect all employees working in line with government guidance and, where relevant, with unions on the procedures. If you have 50 or more employees you must publish your Covid-19 risk assessment on your company website.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for the kinds of decisions involved in reopening a workplace during a pandemic, which range from workplace travel policies to how to monitor employees for coronavirus symptoms.

Each business has its own risks to consider. A meat-packing plant or a retail outlet needs people on the floor. These types of business face a different challenge to a tech company that has fully transitioned to a remote working model.

Ascertaining whether staff are fit and healthy enough to return to the workplace

This question highlights the sort of health and safety issues that will arise in the different world we now live in.

You should deal with employees on a one-on-one basis. You need to bear in mind that the Equality Act 2010 protects workers with a disability against discrimination by their employers.

Although there is no specific requirement, other than in specialist sectors, to carry out any form of health screening, some businesses have chosen to carry out temperature checks. Without a contractual right to check an employee’s temperature, employers cannot force an employee to do this. If employees do not volunteer to have their temperature checked, or there is contractual right to rely on, employers are not permitted to require a test to be taken. Employers may wish to consider whether there is an implied contractual term to require an employee to take a temperature test based on the fact that an employer has a duty of care to protect the health and safety of its workforce. This is a complicated area of law and advice should always be taken.

If employees do reveal medical information it is vital that you keep it confidential and in line with the Data Protection Act 2018.

When discussing these matters with employees, it’s vital to be transparent and to reassure employees that you are doing everything do ensure their safety and health.

Asking employees about their symptoms

You are permitted to ask employees whether they are experiencing any Covid-19 symptoms, such as a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, sore throat, loss of taste or smell or other symptoms identified by health authorities.

Employers may require that employees answer questions or provide certifications concerning their experience of any Covid-19 symptoms or their exposure to individuals with confirmed cases. This also forms part of the Government’s “track and trace” programme, where employers should also record their employees’ shift patterns and keep records for a minimum of 21 days. For some businesses, this is now a legal requirement.

Employers may do this on a daily basis or at other intervals, as well as when an employee calls in sick, and must maintain information as a confidential medical record. Employers should be careful not to ask health questions that are unrelated to Covid-19, including asking about underlying medical conditions or symptoms not associated with Covid-19. (For the purpose of determining whether an employee should be permitted to remain at home, employers can ask employees to certify as a general matter that they have an underlying health condition that heightens their risk of harm if they were to contract Covid-19.)

Monitoring employee health

Although no specific health monitoring is required, it is good practise to keep an eye on the mental health and wellbeing of your staff, particularly during time of significant change.

You should develop communication and training materials for workers prior to returning to site, especially around any new procedures for arrival at work. You should also plan on training employees and demonstrating the new safety measures in place to protect them from the spread of the virus. The more employees understand about what safety measures are being taken, and why, the more likely there is to be employee buy-in, and the less likely that employees may make complaints to the HSE or other third parties regarding perceived risk in the workplace.

To be clear, employee complaints about perceived safety issues should be taken very seriously and investigated, and you should not take any retaliatory action against employees who make such claims in good faith.

In addition to offering training to your workforce, make it a habit to check in with employees as often as possible to ensure they are comfortable with their work environment and the changes associated with returning to the workplace.

Equality in the workplace

Employers should be mindful of particular needs of different groups of workers, and have particular responsibilities towards those who are disabled, as well as new or expectant mothers. To ensure that the needs of employees are met, employers should communicate appropriately with employees whose protected characteristic might expose them to particular risk. Employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers to avoid placing them at a disadvantage.

Managing contacts

Employers should limit the number of visitors (including clients, customer and contractors) to the workplace. Where visitors are required, social distancing and hygiene rules should be explained to them.

Cleaning the workplace

Workplaces that have been closed or partially closed should be made clean and ready to re-open. Workplaces should be well ventilated, and ventilation systems should be checked in case they need a service or adjustment. In addition:

  • frequent cleaning of work areas and equipment between uses is needed; this includes door handles and keyboards

  • use of high-touch items should be limited

  • reminders of personal hygiene standards should be provided

  • cleaning for busy areas should be enhanced

  • paper towels should be used for hand drying where possible.

Workforce management

Employers should consider changing the way that work is organised to create distinct groups and reduce the number of contacts each employee has. The guidance says this can be achieved by implementing certain measures including:

  • as far as possible, splitting staff into teams or shift groups, fixing these teams so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people

  • minimising non-essential travel

  • providing clear, consistent and regular communication

  • setting up ongoing engagement with workers to monitor unforeseen impacts of changes.

Employers may require that employees answer questions or provide certifications concerning their experience of any Covid-19 symptoms or their exposure to individuals with confirmed cases. This also forms part of the Government’s “track and trace” programme, where employers should also record their employees’ shift patterns and keep records for a minimum of 21 days. For some businesses, this is now a legal requirement.

Inbound and outbound goods

Social distancing should be maintained when goods enter and leave the workplace. Steps to achieve this include:

  • revising pick up and collection points

  • considering how deliveries could be reduced

  • where possible, using the same pairs of people for loads where more than one is needed.