The coronavirus is a new hazard that will require the implementation of new risk control measures. Mike Sopp advises on how to assess and control the risks of a return to the workplace.

It can be said with some confidence that the COVID-19 outbreak is the most significant crisis the UK has faced in 75 years.

The country is currently in transition from the “lockdown phase” into what is being described as the “recovery phase” or the “new normal”. The Government's strategy to facilitate this includes looking at “the best way to make workplaces less infectious”. As a consequence, new COVID-19 secure guidelines focusing on different sectors have been published.

Health and safety implications of the pandemic

The primary aim of the UK strategy is to save lives but it also recognises a need to reduce the social and economic impacts of the restrictive lockdown measures.

The objective is therefore to return to as normal a life as possible for as many people as possible but in doing so ensuring another epidemic is avoided. UK employers are expected to embrace this strategy and play their part in preventing another epidemic.

All organisations will need to recognise that the control of COVID-19 is being seen as an occupational health and safety matter. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has stated that “the law requires all employers to assess the risk of returning to work while the coronavirus outbreak is ongoing and to put steps in place to manage that risk”.

COVID-19 is therefore clearly a new occupational health and safety hazard. The HSE warns that the steps employers need to take “mean that work is likely to be organised differently from how it was before lockdown”.

Whereas the lockdown phase has been some 8-10 weeks, the new normal phase could last for months, with some estimates suggesting a period of 18 months (before the coronavirus disappears, herd immunity is achieved or a successful vaccine is rolled out).

During this phase the measures being taken to control the virus will be subject to continual review with the potential for measures to be reduced further but also for more restrictive measures to be introduced again if the epidemic shows signs of reigniting.

COVID-19 as a new hazard has the potential to significantly change an organisation's health and safety risk profile and will require the implementation of new risk control measures. As such employers will need robust risk management arrangements to meet this challenge.

COVID-19 risk management

The UK health and safety risk management regime is based upon the principle of reducing risks to “as low as reasonably practicable” (ALARP), with risk assessment at the core of the regime.

In summary, risk assessments for a re-opening of the workplace or a return to work must:

  • meet the “suitable and sufficient” criteria in that they identify foreseeable hazards, evaluate risks and implement the risk control measures that reduce risks to the ALARP criteria by following best practice

  • be completed by competent persons (ie those with the skills, knowledge and experience to do so) but with input from others familiar with the working environment including employees and/or their representatives

  • communicate outcomes to employees and others in terms of residual risks and risk control measures to be adopted

  • be reviewed where there is “significant change” in matters to which the risk assessment relates or where it is suspected the risk assessment is no longer valid.

In terms of COVID-19, employers may have to justify risk management decisions and control measures taken to stakeholders including employees, trade unions, enforcing authorities, clients, etc.

As such, employers should ensure its framework for completing risk assessments is robust and capable of meeting the criteria noted above. As such employers should consider the following.

  • Scoping: how will the organisation scope the assessment process (eg by building, by service or a combination of both) to ensure relevant risk control measures are identified and applied?

  • Responsibilities: has the organisation determined who will be responsible for taking ownership and completion of the risk assessments and how the views of others can be included in the process?

  • Upskilling: do those responsible have an understanding of the risk assessment process and access to all relevant guidance and information on the coronavirus to enable them to complete assessments?

  • Methodology: can the current methodology be utilised to risk assess COVID-19 risks or does the methodology need to be adjusted?

  • Hazard identification: has the organisation identified all useful sources of information on the hazards and risk control measures associated with COVID-19?

  • Risk control: has the organisation agreed minimum standards of risk control (eg Government COVID-19 secure guidelines, HSE guidelines, association guidelines)?

Risk control principles

In May 2020, the UK Government published a number of “working safely during COVID-19” guidelines that cover various working environments ranging from office work to construction work.

These documents set out guidance on how to work safely, giving “practical considerations of how this can be applied in the workplace”. The guidance does not have the status of an Approved Code of Practice from the HSE or introduce new legal duties but does contain “non-statutory guidance to take into account when complying with these existing obligations”.

It is also worth noting that the guidance states that where an enforcing authority identifies employers who are not taking action to comply with the relevant public health legislation and guidance to control public health risks, “they will consider taking a range of actions to improve control of workplace risks”.

The guidance contains details of how to reduce risks to as low as reasonably practicable. See 5 safe working principles for a “COVID-19 secure” business. The guidance notes that in the assessment process employers should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The UK Government expects employers with 50 or more employees to publish the results of the risk assessment/s on their website and display an approved notice that indicates the employer has followed Government guidance.

Practicalities of risk control

The Government publications state that businesses will need to translate the practical considerations “into the specific actions it needs to take, depending on the nature of their business, including the size and type of business, how it is organised, operated, managed and regulated”.

This in itself can be challenging, particularly in larger organisations with employees undertaking numerous work activities across multiple premises.

It should be borne in mind that as well as the direct issues associated with COVID-19, the current situation could change your organisation's existing hazard/risk profile and create additional indirect hazards that will need to be identified and assessed.

Under health and safety requirements employers should have a competent person available who will be experienced at taking HSE guidance and applying this in a practical manner in the workplace/s.

One approach is to examine the organisation and break down the potential hazards into people, property and management issues.

People risk issues

For example, employees can be broken down into a number of working groups such as employees who:

  • work from home undertaking general office work (ie using portable DSE for prolonged periods)

  • cannot work at home due to the work activities (eg manufacturing goods)

  • work in public facing roles (eg banks, libraries, supermarkets)

  • are peripatetic (eg community workers, those who travel or go to other people's premises to do their job)

  • are vulnerable (due to COVID-19 or a protected characteristic).

For each group it is then possible to identify the hazards (direct and indirect) by breaking roles down and then by reviewing the relevant guidance. In this way organisations can decide on the risk control measures to reduce risks to as low as reasonably practicable based upon social distancing and risk mitigation.

As an example, for employees working in public facing roles, there is a foreseeable risk of COVID-19 transfer by proximity to members of the public but also through the transfer of items (eg library books, cash) where the virus may be present. Indirect risks may include what could be described as “COVID-19 violence” (eg public deliberately coughing at employees) as well as an increase in aggression (eg due to increased waiting times due to new procedures).

Buildings risk issues

In respect of buildings, hazards may include the following.

  • Failure to identify and apply social distancing and risk mitigation measures in workplaces.

  • Failure to identify and apply revised cleaning regime to workplaces.

  • Non-compliance with legislative requirements in buildings that have been empty (eg lifts thorough examination, testing of fire alarms, water hygiene).

  • Ongoing proactive maintenance and reactive repairs that do not meet social distancing requirements.

  • Failure to identify responsibilities in leased and/or multi-occupancy buildings for application of measures.

  • Deliveries to and from the premises (eg postal, goods, merchandise).

Organisations with multiple sites will need to assess each building in terms of the application of social distancing and/or risk mitigation measures along with enhanced cleaning regimes. This in itself can create a “logistical hazard” due to resources and the application of official guidance in the work environment.

Similarly, it is important to ensure all relevant compliance requirements are met before the workplace is brought out of lockdown, while essential planned maintenance and repair activities will require thought.

Management risk issues

There will be a series of management hazards that will need to be considered, not least:

  • fire evacuation arrangements (eg limited fire warden coverage, PEEPs and social distancing, assembly points)

  • first aid (eg coverage, certification expiration, undertaking of treatment such as CPR, etc)

  • supply of sanitisers/PPE/DSE equipment due to supply and demand issues

  • supply chain management to ensure contractors apply/abide by control measures

  • employee information, instruction, training and supervision needs to apply control measures

  • communication with stakeholders over revised risk control measures (eg contractors, public, visitors)

  • employee mental health and stress due to changes and concerns over COVID-19

  • procedures for dealing with COVID-19 illness, eg if a member of staff falls ill at work

  • reporting of COVID-19 related incidents such as COVID-19 violence, breach of social distancing, first aid treatment given, etc.

These clearly are a mixture of direct and indirect issues that will need addressing and as such organisations must identify all relevant guidance. For example, the HSE has introduced revised guidance on the undertaking of CPR when delivering first aid.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that COVID-19 will change UK workplaces' business risk profile including the health and safety risk profile.

Your organisation's COVID-19 risk profile will be required to be kept under constant review as the national strategy is liable to change.

Last reviewed 18 May 2020