Last reviewed 26 September 2020

On Sunday 10 May 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that he had been working on guidance for employers in England on how workplaces can remain COVID-19 secure. This guidance was released on Monday 11 May 2020 as eight documents, each covering different sectors. There are some commonalities covering every sector.

As this Part 1 article focuses on ensuring the workplace is safe for employees who are returning to work, we have substantially re-worked it to summarise the Government’s specific health and safety requirements for all employers on 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.

On Tuesday 22 September 2020, the Prime Minister announced new coronavirus restrictions that may impact upon plans to reopen the workplace, including a change in the guidance to let staff work from home. This below guidance was prepared to help employers manage the “return to work” process. However, since the Prime Minister’s latest announcement, it is likely that employers’ focus will now return to implementation, and continuation, of homeworking.

In Scotland and Wales, the default position has been, since the start of the initial lockdown period in March, that employees should work from home where they can.

Thinking about risk

All employers should carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment to assess and manage the risks of COVID-19. The objective of this is to identify sensible measures to control the risk in the workplace. While there is no requirement for an employer with fewer than five employees to have a written risk assessment, an assessment should still be done and, in any case, it may help to write it down. Employers should consider involving workers in making decisions about health and safety, and must consult with the health and safety representatives of the recognised trade union or workforce.

To reduce risk, employers should ensure that:

  • frequency of handwashing increases

  • if working from home where possible, every reasonable effort to implement social distancing measures should be made to ensure that employees are kept 2m apart

  • if social distancing cannot be achieved, employers should consider whether an activity needs to continue for the business to operate and, if so, take additional measures such as installing screens between workstations, using back-to-back rather than side-to-side working, reducing the number of people each person has contact with

  • if people must work face to face for a sustained period, employers should assess whether that activity can safely go ahead.

Employers should consider sharing the results of the risk assessment with their workforce.

Who should go to work

Current government guidance outlines that employees should work from home if they can but are also able to return to the workplace if it is Covid-secure. From 1 August, this guidance will change, meaning it will be up to employers to make this decision. Therefore, provided staff can be asked safely to return, employers are free to do so from this date.

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. Whilst shielding has ended in England, Scotland and Wales, individuals may still be asked to shield as a result of local coronavirus restrictions. In this situation, employees should be offered the option of the safest available roles with social distancing.

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.

Social distancing

Social distancing is to be maintained wherever possible, paying particular attention to arrival and departure from work. Handwashing facilities, or hand sanitiser, should be available at entry and exit points, in meeting rooms, etc.

Steps that will usually be needed include:

  • staggering arrival, departure and break times, taking account of those with protected characteristics

  • having more entry points to the workplace

  • providing more parking facilities

  • discouraging non-essential movement between sites

  • reviewing layouts and processes to allow people to work further away from each other

  • only where it is not possible to move workstations apart, install screens

  • avoiding hotdesking

  • using remote working tools

  • avoiding in-person meetings

  • encouraging staff to bring their own food to eat at break times.

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.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

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.

  • from Monday 28 September, workers in shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs will be required to wear face coverings.

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.