As set out in their guidance at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-response-summer-2021-roadmap/covid-19-response-summer-2021, the Government have announced that they intend to remove all legal restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 in England from 19 July 2021. This does not however change the employer’s responsibilities to provide a safe place of work. In this guidance the Government have made clear that “Working Safely: guidance will be updated to provide examples of sensible precautions that employers can take to reduce risk in their workplaces. Employers should take account of this guidance in preparing the risk assessments they are already required to make under pre-pandemic health and safety rules”.
The Council for Work and Health, comprises members from the broad range of organisations involved in health and work. The aim of this briefing note is to provide guidance to employers on how they can protect the health of employees and others affected by the activities of their organisation, in the context of rising levels of COVID-19 infection in the community, and the potential disruption to business continuity through loss of manpower through self-isolation.
Whereas the requirement for self-isolation for contacts who are double vaccinated and children is to end from 16thAugust (at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/self-isolation-to-be-eased-for-fully-vaccinated-adults-in-step-4), there are likely to be significant numbers of employees unavailable due to existing legal requirements to self-isolate following notification by NHS test and Trace that they are a contact (at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/nhs-test-and-trace-how-it-works). Keeping transmission of infection in the workplace as low as possible will promote health of the workforce, and the business.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on making the workplace COVID secure is the principal reference, at: https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/index.htm. HSE intend to update this guidance on 19thJuly, but the following principles would endure:
We recommend all employers review their workplace risk assessment, to review known hazards and to identify new potential hazards to health, and any change in the likelihood of employees and others coming to harm as a result.
Hazards include a biological hazard, COVID-19, and specifically the Delta variant causing the current third wave, and which is known to be more transmissible than the Alpha variant dominant until now.
In considering those who may be more vulnerable, employers may have taken advice from occupational health professionals on those people who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19. Factors increasing risk of individuals coming to harm if infected include age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, and health conditions the evidence shows increase vulnerability, and particularly in combination.
There are also potential psychological hazards e.g. from those who have been working from home during the pandemic anxious about coming into the workplace, or those in public facing roles.
In the context of risk assessment, it is important for employers to consult with employees and/or their representatives. Where feasible coproduction of this risk assessment is likely to identify the potential hazards and the associated risk, for employees, and others affected by the organisation’s activities.
Having considered hazards and the risk posed by these hazards, risk management controls should be reviewed. These are best considered within the “hierarchy of controls”. We are pleased to note that the Government are adopting this approach in their guidance, for example updated guidance on risk assessment for schools at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/annex-a-health-and-safety-risk-assessment:
- Elimination. To stop an activity that is not considered essential if there are associated risks.
- Substitution. Replacing an activity with another may reduce the risk. e.g. home working. It is important to note that substitution can create another risk, and there are mental health implications that have been seen through isolation over this last year or so. There are also physical hazards, and we have seen significant numbers of people who have work-related upper limb disorder due to unsuitable display screen equipment workstation setup at home.
- Engineering controls. These are ways to design out risk, or to use physical means to separate people from source of the risk. This will also include ventilation, fresh air being important to reducing the amount of virus that is in the air that people breathe in workplaces.
- Administrative controls. These include making space between people, and although the Government is likely to remove the legal requirement for social distancing, employers may consider whether it is necessary to have all employees within the office at one time. Keeping occupancy in the workplace below pre-pandemic levels will reduce the risk of transmission, and so reduce the likelihood of employees being infected in their work, or when commuting to and from work.
- Personal protective equipment. With the legal requirement to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport likely to be ending, businesses can still decide whether their employees should still wear masks or other PPE in the workplace. They also may require those visiting the premises wear to face coverings where risk assessment and control measures cannot reduce risk as low as reasonably practicable. In healthcare and in care homes, this is likely to remain a requirement in these settings for the foreseeable future.
Testing. Testing is an administrative control. Employers may consider introducing twice weekly rapid home testing if they are not already doing so. Employees can order lateral flow device (LFD) tests through the Government website at: https://www.gov.uk/order-coronavirus-rapid-lateral-flow-tests. By taking an LFD test before coming to work, this allows those people who are infected, but do not know it, to avoid infecting others. Positive or negative results should be reported whether positive or negative each time at: https://www.gov.uk/report-covid19-result. And of course, those who have symptoms must self-isolate, and obtain a PCR test as soon as possible. Those testing positive on LFD testing should also self isolate and obtain a PCR test as soon as possible (as at: https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test).
Immunisation. Immunisation may also be seen as a risk management control. The evidence shows that the vaccinations currently in use in the UK remained effective against the dominant Delta variant, although both doses are needed to gain maximum protection (as reported on 8 Jul 2021 by the REACT study at:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/react-1-study-of-coronavirus-transmission-june-2021-interim-results. Being double vaccinated may therefore allow those who are more vulnerable to work in a public facing role, together with other risk management controls that the employer considers appropriate following risk assessment. However, we do not know as yet however whether being vaccinated substantially reduces the risk of passing the infection onto others. Therefore until otherwise, those who are vaccinated must still “follow the rules” in the community, and in workplaces.
Communication and training. It is essential that all staff are fully aware of the rationale for the risk management controls. The effectiveness of controls may be enhanced through coproduction where this is appropriate, but consultation with employees and/or their representatives is always needed.
Review. Risk assessment and controls should be reviewed at periods that the employer determines, and specifically when the situation changes.
Professional advice. Advice on keeping risks to health in the workplace as low as reasonably practicable may be obtained through providers of occupational health and safety services, and from human resources, workplace mental health providers and other professionals represented by the broad range of members that form the Council for Work and Health at: https://www.councilforworkandhealth.org.uk/about/our-members/