Following recent announcements, the government has published its updated Working Safely guidance which applies from 19 July 2021. There are now six sector-specific guides, including a specific guide covering offices, factories and labs.
With the removal of the requirement to work at home "if you can", the government is recommending a gradual return to the workplace over the summer and employers are now looking at what steps they must take to facilitate office-based working.
Communicating with staff and representatives
The guidance emphasises that employers should discuss the return to the workplace and any changed working models with all those who might be affected and employee representatives. Consultation should also take place on any health and safety measures put in place to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading. Where employers share a workspace with other businesses, discussions should also take place on health and safety issues with those organisations.
Given the concerns over health and wellbeing raised by Covid-19, employers should ensure that they "remain responsive to workers' needs". Employers should give extra consideration to people at "higher risk and to workers facing mental and physical health difficulties". Guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable has also been updated.
The guidance sets out priority actions for office-based employers to protect staff and customers and suggests measures to put in place including:
- Updating the Covid-19 risk assessment to reflect discussions with workers and representatives and changing working arrangements.
- Providing adequate ventilation – the guidance includes proposed measures that can assist in ensuring there is a supply of fresh air to indoor spaces where there are people present.
- Cleaning more often – it is especially important to clean surfaces that people touch a lot and ask staff and customers to use hand sanitiser and clean their hands frequently.
- Ensuring staff and customers self-isolate in accordance with the current government requirements around testing positive or coming into close contact with someone who has tested positive. It will be an offence to allow someone to come into work if you know that they are self-isolating.
- Mitigating against the spread of Covid-19 via social contact by reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using, for example "fixed teams or partnering" or "cohorting" and reviewing layouts, using screens or barriers to separate people from each other, or using back-to-back or side-to-side working, instead of face-to-face. In taking any steps, employers must remain mindful of those with disabilities and consider what reasonable adjustments should be put in place. Workstations should be assigned to individuals where possible; otherwise cleaning should take place between each user.
- Encouraging face-masks in enclosed or crowded spaces (but remaining mindful of reasonable adjustments needed for clients and staff with disabilities and other legal obligations). However, precautionary use of PPE is not encouraged unless it is required against non-Covid risks or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case.
- Appropriate messaging for visitors and contractors about Covid-19 measures.
Reporting any positive cases to public health
The updated guidance also includes a requirement to report any positive cases of Covid-19 to your local authority public health team. Employers must ensure they have an up-to-date plan in case of a Covid-19 outbreak.
While this latest guidance is not legally binding, employers will be expected to consider the recommendations as part of their legal health and safety duties and risk assessment processes required under the Health and Safety at Work Act and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. Employers should continue to pay close attention to the guidance in putting in place their return to work arrangements, as well as, of course, their existing legal obligations, including the statutory duty to provide a safe place of work and not to discriminate. Case law coming out of the Employment Tribunal on Covid-19 issues also indicates that tribunals will look closely at how an employer has responded to government guidance in determining individual claims. The guidance also emphasises continuing concerns over health and wellbeing and suggests employers consider providing support where this is not already in place.
In updating their Covid-19 risk assessment, employers should now consider how their existing processes work against the updated guidance including what policies may be appropriate with regard to face coverings in the office (bearing in mind the duty not to discriminate) – an area which may not previously have been considered in light of the social distancing requirements. Employers should also ensure that they have a process in place for notifying public health of any positive case of Covid-19, as well as steps to be followed where an outbreak occurs.