Manufacturing: Making the right changes to your workplace and your workforce

In essence, manufacturing is simple; bring in materials and push product out.

But when an unforeseen risk is introduced, it can create huge complications that threaten productivity and ultimately your bottom line. Manufacturers are no strangers to regulations and compliance, and adhering to conventional health and safety requirements is comparatively straightforward – processes are planned in and costed. But change is difficult and COVID-19 is forcing exactly that, not only to the physical workplace, but also to the workforce.

Read on to understand the steps you can take as an employer to continue to operate safely and sustainably.

Changing the workplace environment in response to COVID-19

In a hands-on, factory-floor environment, what does it take to keep people safe?

Whatever your operational circumstances in the past three months, as an employer you must continue to be vigilant and regularly review your risk assessment and associated workplace control measures. This is particularly important if, for example, you have more employees returning to work from furlough.

The Hierarchy of Control

Before considering which control measures are necessary, it is important to understand the principle of the “Hierarchy of Control”. Health and safety legislation requires employers to apply control measures in the order they appear within this hierarchy, from most to least effective. Only once you have exhausted the control measures required at the top levels because they are not reasonably practicable you can proceed to the next level. Let’s consider this in reality:

  1. Elimination: Employers can eliminate the risk of infection to individual workers by allowing them to work remotely wherever possible. Do office, sales and support employees need to be on-site to keep producing?
  2. Substitution: Shift patterns, or reducing production staff, would reduce the risk of infection but could introduce other hazards such as staff working alone or a reduction in your first aid cover. Be mindful of how your changes may introduce other hazards.
  3. Engineering controls: Consider installing physical barriers to reduce contact with others, changing the flow of employees around the workplace, and introducing a one-way system. Are there certain production lines that could be adjusted to help with social distancing?
  4. Administrative controls: Look at controls which rely more heavily on employees, such as reducing face-to-face work by having people work side-by-side instead. Stagger breaks so there are less people in one place at a time and encourage good workplace hygiene through posters and regular communication.
  5. PPE: This should only be used as a final resort when all other options have been exhausted.

All of your COVID-19 controls must be documented via a risk assessment. Ellis Whittam’s Coronavirus Advice Hub contains a free manufacturing sector-specific risk assessment template to aid in this process. But remember, it is not simply a paper exercise – it is important to collaborate with employees when building the assessment and make the findings available. Whilst it is a legal requirement to consult with employees on health and safety matters, involving staff in the risk assessment process will help to instil confidence and protect against employee complaints.

Making adjustments to your workforce

There are two major forces that could impact the shape of your workforce this year.

The first is your control measures. Will you need people to start and finish at different times to comply with social distancing? Will you need to reorganise your workforce, perhaps redeploying some employees to other roles or departments, either permanently or temporarily? Will you need to cut hours or pay due to the financial impact of the crisis?

Consider these questions ahead of time and document your decision-making so that this can be used to support any processes that result from your planning.

Once you have your resourcing plan, you may need to amend employees’ terms and conditions to reflect any changes. For example, asking people to work different shifts, perhaps with a later start and finish time, could involve a contractual change.

There are many factors and scenarios to consider and more detailed guidance around this can be found on the Coronavirus Advice Hub.

Second is the order book.

The story will differ depending on which sector or sectors you are manufacturing for given the array of commercial winners and losers from COVID-19. If you have found the level of demand for product has dropped then your staff will be working less hours with reduced shifts. Lots of manufacturers are taking advantage of flexible furlough; however, with the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in sight, it is critical to start planning the structure of your business thereafter.

Making redundancies can be daunting for everyone involved, whether it is the employer in managing the process or the employees at risk of losing their jobs or their colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, redundancies are sometimes a necessary business decision, and the key is to understand the legal requirements and conduct a fair procedure. There are a number of interlocking sets of legal rules that need to be taken into account, which are referenced in guidance that can be found in the ‘Back to Business’ section of the Coronavirus Advice Hub.

These are challenging times for manufacturers. But when faced with uncertainty, remember: control what you can.

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.

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