Managing Covid-19

Keeping safe from coronavirus in the workplace

Published on 9th Mar 2020


As the UK reported numbers of coronavirus surpasses the 200 mark, businesses that haven't already will need to give serious thought to their health and safety obligations and plans for tackling coronavirus in the workplace.

As well as having a legal duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure the safety of employees in the workplace, businesses also have duties to ensure that the way work is carried out does not have a negative impact on the safety and health of others affected by its work.  This includes members of the public and contractors.

How should a business start coronavirus planning?

  1. Put together a designated team in the business focused on coronavirus planning and accountable for actions

This will help the business stay on track in a fast-developing situation.  If you have expertise in the business on health and safety and business continuity, a representative from each in the group will be very useful. Input from HR, IT and Facilities Management teams will be needed at a minimum.  Depending on your industry, other specialists may be needed but to be effective, we recommend keeping the team to around six people or fewer.  The chair will then report into senior leadership who can make final decisions.

  1. Create a risk assessment

Coronavirus – as an illness that could make employees, or others the business interacts with, sick – is likely to be a material risk that needs consideration in terms of how it can be eliminated or controlled in the workplace.  Health and safety risks require assessment (under Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999) and need to be recorded if the business has more than five employees.

  1. Use government guidance as a minimum

The Health and Safety Executive points to government guidance, its guide for employers, and specific advice for decontamination in non-healthcare settings and for the education sector, social/community care and residential settings and the transport sector. Separate advice is in place for healthcare settings.

  1. Make sure your risk assessment covers the right topics

Government guidance is the starting point but you also need to think about your particular business, as well as how guidance could change and what that would mean for you. For example, if the government shut schools, advised people to work from home or banned international travel, how would your business need to adapt?

The types of topics to consider at this stage will include:

  • Daily hygiene – cover the basics. Have you got enough soap, tissues and hand sanitiser, along with information for staff on the enhanced hand washing guidance?  Additional cleaning of work areas (including desks and phones) is recommended, either by cleaning contractors or by employees.  Think about encouraging hand washing on entering the office and making it easy for everyone to follow the government guidance on this.
  • Talk to your cleaners and other contractors – the cleaners have a key role to play. Speak to them about not only advanced provision but also the day-to-day need (and keeping them safe). If you have caterers or those working with food, they will need enhanced procedures about any sign of sickness.  Reception staff will also be more vulnerable because of contact with people. All these services also play a key role in repeating corporate messages to the workforce and helping you keep things running smoothly.
  • Travel arrangements – are your employees and line managers clear on the guidance about international travel and not only self-isolation but also how you want them to report to you when they come back from travel and into work? Most businesses are reducing all but essential international business travel but where travel is required, consider any insurance validity issues and guidance to employees, particularly if the government guidance changes while they are away.
  • Working from home – whether due to self-isolation needs or a change in government guidance, is your business set up to allow staff to work from home? Can your IT system cope with everyone working at home at the same time, or do you need to test how the system copes? Do employees have the equipment and tools they need?  Do you have an IT help desk number ready and available?  It is also worth considering how you will communicate with employees that they may need to work at home and when they are at home – tools like Whatsapp, Skype and Microsoft Teams could all play an important role.
  • Process in the event of sickness in the office – the government guidance provides information about the need for a designated area, two metres from others, in the event of sickness in the office, as well as a process for managing sickness. Public Health England will need to be notified of confirmed coronavirus incidents and will give guidance on what needs to be done in those circumstances.  Businesses should consider how any deep cleaning of an office space/site will be undertaken and have provisions available if needed.
  • Dealing with sickness generally – we have produced a separate Insight on employer and employee rights in relation to coronavirus. Consider repeating your usual absence policy and encourage the use of common sense. If your workers can work at home and they have a cough or sniff, you don't really want them infecting everyone in the business (even if it is not coronavirus).  Likewise, if someone is feeling unwell, they shouldn’t be coming into work.  It is worth considering the adequacy of your sickness reporting and getting line managers to report in all instances of sickness to help you monitor risk.
  • Business as usual – coronavirus is having a significant impact on BAU activities. For companies that regularly have face-to-face meetings or run events, consideration is needed as to policy on postponement thresholds and messaging to clients/customers to provide reassurance.  Other businesses regularly interacting with customers will also need to consider thresholds for when changes will need to be made in BAU both the protect employees and those members of the public.
  1. Reassure employees

Internal communication channels and cascading of messages through line managers is critical in a time when things are so fast moving.  Using your corporate language and having line managers echoing messages should help reassure employees and keep your business running as smoothly as it can.

If you would like to discuss how we can assist your business in preparing for coronavirus in the workplace, please contact one of the experts listed below, or your usual Osborne Clarke contact.


* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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