Updated government guidance on working safely during the Coronavirus – what employers need to know!
by Tamara Barbeary & Sunny Rafaeli
On 12th July, the government published its updated workplace guidance reflecting the measures businesses are advised to follow from 19 July 2021 in conjunction with England moving to Step 4 of its roadmap. The new guidance covers six workplace settings including hotels and offices, but a number of common themes emerge across all of these workplace settings. The main message from the guidance is that from 19 July, the government:
- is ending social distancing
- is no longer instructing people to work from home
- is expecting and recommending a gradual return to the office over the summer
- is reminding employers that they must continue to follow statutory health and safety
Although working from home is no longer expected and social distancing is no longer required, employers still have general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and a common law duty of care to their employees to provide a safe place of work. The guidance reminds employers that they must conduct a risk assessment (one that includes the risk from Coronavirus) and take reasonable steps to manage any risks in the workplace.
We have picked out 5 key points from the guidance that we think are important for employers to consider:
Point #1 – Consult with the workforce:
- The guidance reminds employers of their legal duty to consult with workers on health and safety matters and encourages employers to consult with workers in regard to the return to the workplace, including the timing and phasing of the return.
- Aside from the legal aspect, practically, consultation is likely to improve workforce cooperation with reopening plans.
Point #2 – Consider working arrangements and who should go to work:
- Although the removal of social distancing rules means that there are no longer limits on occupancy, the guidance still recommends taking steps that may mean fewer workers will be at work at one time.
- The guidance recommends reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ and using barriers to separate people.
- Employers are also encouraged to pay particular attention to those at-risk individuals, including pregnant women and clinically vulnerable individuals who may be classed as disabled under the Equality Act. Employers will need to discuss what reasonable adjustments can be made which may include working from home, if reasonable.
- A considerate and flexible approach to returning to the workplace is advisable.
Point #3 – Ensure proper ventilation:
- The updated guidance puts much more emphasis on ventilation. It states that the priority for the risk assessment is to identify occupied areas that are poorly ventilated and reduce the risk of aerosol transmission in these areas.
- Where ventilation cannot be improved, the guidance suggests that employers may consider restricting occupancy levels and the time spent in these areas.
Point #4 – Encourage the use of face coverings:
- Although face coverings are no longer required by law, the guidance clearly expects and recommends that people will continue to wear them in crowded, enclosed spaces.
- Employers will need to be satisfied that they have taken all reasonably practicable steps to minimise the risk to health and safety. They may, therefore, choose to encourage wearing face coverings in the workplace, particularly in indoor areas where workers will come into contact with others.
- Any requirement for workers to wear face masks will need to be adjusted as appropriate for those who are unable to wear them, to ensure compliance with the Equality Act.
Point #5 – Tests and vaccinations:
- The guidance does not actively promote employer-arranged testing but it reminds readers that employers can choose to implement this. There are legal and practical risks with implementing mandatory testing – encouraging voluntary testing is a less risky approach.
- The guidance does not refer to vaccinations other than to remind employers that mitigating steps (such as frequent cleaning) should be taken even though workers may have been vaccinated.
CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS:
We advise employers to consider the relevant guides in full as this article just touches on some of the issues covered. It is important to note that the guidance does leave flexibility for employers to determine what is appropriate for their particular workforce, but caution is its overall message.
We strongly recommend that employers review and update risk assessments in light of the new guidance. Employers will need to decide how to appropriately manage a gradual return to the workplace. They may, for example, consider allowing staff to come into work for one or two days a week.
Ultimately, communication is key. We would advise employers to consider the opinions and concerns of workers (especially those who are at higher risk) regarding proposed next steps. Also, many workers are likely to feel anxious about returning to the workplace so regular communication is vital
DISCLAIMER: The content of this article has been prepared for informational purposes only. The content does not constitute legal advice nor does it give rise to a solicitor / client relationship. Specialist legal advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances.
If you do require specific assistance in relation to any of the above issues or any other employment related matters, please contact our specialist team here at Lennons.
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