How to ensure a smooth, safe return to work

We recently asked the thousands of UK employers accessing our free Coronavirus Advice Hub what they feel their main challenges will be as lockdown eases. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concern at the forefront of most employers’ minds is ensuring the workplace is safe for employees to return.

No matter whether you have remained open, have recently reopened, or are currently planning how and when to reopen your place of work, it’s imperative that you have effective measures in place to prevent the spread of infection. Doing so will give all of your staff the confidence to re-enter the workplace, which will be integral to your ability to operate under new conditions.

Creating a safe work environment

For many employers, the current pandemic will be the first time they have had to confront a serious and imminent health and safety risk. While the exact measures you will need to implement will depend on your specific environment and the activities undertaken, the following six-step approach will help to ensure compliance with relevant guidance and legislation.

Step 1: Continue to encourage homeworking

Under present circumstances, anyone who can feasibly work from home should continue to do so. This is the only possible way of eliminating the risk of people contracting the disease from work. Remember that your duty of care extends to homeworkers, so you should carry out a homeworking risk assessment to identify potential hazards and ensure remote employees have everything they need to work safely and comfortably.

Step 2: Workplace risk assessment

When reopening your workplace, or parts of your workplace, you will need to complete a risk assessment and review existing policies, such as your Infection Control Policy. To support you to do this, free sector-specific risk assessment templates and accompanying guidance are available from Ellis Whittam’s Coronavirus Advice Hub.

Step 3: Monitoring and supervision

Your first line of defence is, of course, to stop the virus from entering your premises. This requires monitoring the health of employees on entry and during the working day and supervising employees so you can be confident that the controls mentioned in the risk assessment are being followed effectively.

Step 4: Emergency Action Plan

You will need to develop an effective action plan outlining how you will deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in your workplace. You must make sure that this is communicated effectively so that everyone understands what action will need to be taken should someone experience symptoms or be confirmed as having the virus.

Step 5: Education and training

In order for your control measures to be effective, all staff will need to be aware of their existence and their importance in maintaining a safe working environment. Think about how you will communicate your safety arrangements and changes in procedure to staff, perhaps through mandatory awareness training for those returning to work followed by regular updates through established communication channels and signage around the workplace.

Step 6: Review

Crucially, you must review your controls on a regular basis to ensure they remain effective and align with current government guidance.

Using your risk assessment as the basis for safety and team stability

A risk assessment is not only vital from a health and safety compliance perspective but can underpin and support your employment-related decisions too. Many of the issues employers will face in the months ahead will be impacted by the risk assessments and guidance provided, so to effectively manage employee relations issues it’s crucial that you act in accordance with the measures contained within those documents.

Note that it is a legal requirement to consult with your workforce about the contents of your risk assessment. Not only will this help to protect your position, but it can help to give employees confidence that you are taking all the steps necessary to make the workplace as safe as possible. This, in turn, should encourage them to return to work.

Dealing with refusals to return to work

Now that lockdown is beginning to ease and workplaces are reopening, we are beginning to see employees raise concerns that they do not want to come into work because they do not think it is safe to do so.

The key point will be whether the employee holds a “reasonable belief” about danger in the workplace. Whether that belief is reasonably held will depend on:

  • What steps the employer has taken to ensure the health and safety of their employees, particularly those in vulnerable groups;
  • What information has been provided to the employee; and
  • What steps have been taken to reassure the employee that they are not in fact in serious or imminent danger.

The individual’s circumstances are also important. For example, if the employee suffers with an underlying medical condition, is of a certain age, and/or is a member of the BAME community then their risk profile will be heightened. Further detailed guidance on navigating these scenarios is available on the Coronavirus Advice Hub.

These are challenging times and it can feel like there is a lot to contend with at once. However, by treating safety as the top priority and taking a proportionate, proactive and collaborative approach to risk, you can minimise most other HR headaches and achieve a smooth, safe return to work.

Ellis Whittam helps over 17,500 British businesses and organisations to create great, safe places to work through fixed-fee Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety support.

Download free sector-specific guides, templates and risk assessments, as well as further COVID-19 employer support resources, from its Coronavirus Advice Hub.

Important legal information

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