Returning to the Workplace – 6 Key Considerations for Employers

Health & Safety at work

On Sunday 10th May, the Prime Minister announced that businesses in England may re-open where employees are unable to work from home.

A route map was subsequently published by the Scottish Government on 21st May, setting out a phased approach to easing the current lockdown restrictions in Scotland and outlining at what stage different types of businesses can re-open. Whilst remote working where possible remains the default position, now is the time for employers to plan ahead and prepare the workplace for welcoming employees back over the next few weeks and months.

The following are 6 key areas that you need to consider when preparing for the return of your workforce.

1. Preparing the Workplace

Before employees can return to the workplace, it must first be made safe. 

The first thing you should do is update your Health and Safety Risk Assessments to include hazards and controls specific to COVID-19.

Then decide who will be responsible for cleaning and preparing your workplace. This could be some of your employees or your cleaning contractors. Make sure they are properly briefed and trained and have the necessary cleaning and protective equipment.

Once your workplace has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, make sure you have enough cleaning supplies and equipment stored on-site to continue to keep it clean and tidy.

If your building has been left unattended for the last few months, you will need to check and test all your plant and equipment, including:

  • The fire alarm systems, extinguishers and escape routes
  • Elevators and escalators
  • Pressure systems
  • Water systems (particularly flushing of taps)
  • Any asbestos-containing materials (to check that they have not deteriorated or been damaged)

2. Preparing the Workforce

Where possible, you should continue to facilitate working from home.

Where employees absolutely need to return to the workplace, make sure you have a clear plan for their return, and it has been shared with them.

The plan should include:

  • Who, when and how they will return (which teams, what times)?
  • What social distancing measures they will be expected to adhere to
  • What new or updated procedures and protocols have been implemented
  • How they should handle work travel and commuting to and from the workplace
  • What emergency procedures are in place for anyone showing signs of infection

Many employees will be worried about their own safety and it is important to address any specific concerns and anxieties they have before you plan for their return.  This includes implementing any specific arrangements for vulnerable persons and high-risk employees.

Clear and regular communication with employees is key to instilling confidence and reducing anxiety for employees getting ready for a return to work.

3. Control Access to the Workplace

To make sure that social distancing measures can be followed when employees return to work, it is important to control which employees will return to work and how they will do this.

Where possible, employees should be divided into small teams (cohorts). You should consider if some teams can continue to work from home or if it is possible to rotate teams in and out of the workplace.  Where employees must come into work, is it possible to stagger start and finish times, and even break times?

You should decide if it is possible to increase the number of access points into the building to reduce congestion.  Where queues are still likely to develop, markings on the floor to indicate appropriate distance (>2m) between each person should be installed (similar to what you see in your supermarket).

It is also important to think about which non-employees will have access to your workplace.  Is it possible to restrict access to visitors and contractors, particularly non-essential visitors? 

You will need to consider how you will manage your goods-in/out processes to reduce the number of delivery people that access your workplace, and to reduce the contact between delivery personnel and your employees.

As we continue to encourage employees to avoid the use of public transport, additional parking for both cars and bikes should also be considered.

4. Introduce Social Distancing Within the Workplace

Maintaining an appropriate distance between employees (>2m) whilst also allowing operations to continue will be key to reducing spread of COVID-19 throughout your workplace.

Workstations and desks should be re-aligned to allow for as much space as possible between each employee.  Where it is not possible to perform a task or operation without maintaining a minimum social distance (e.g. operating equipment), then other control measures should be thought about and recorded in your risk assessment.  Additional control measures will need to be specific to the task, but could include the following:

  • Installation of screens or barriers between people
  • Performing the operation side by side or back to back, rather than face to face
  • Using Personal Protective Equipment (e.g. masks, face shields)
  • Performing the task outdoors or in a well-ventilated area

It is also vital to look at circulation areas and facilities, such as break rooms, toilets and changing areas.

Where possible, circulation areas should be made one-way, or ‘passing places’ signposted to allow others to pass safely (e.g. on stairwells).

Access should be restricted to toilets, showers, changing rooms and break rooms, allowing only 1 or 2 employees to use these at any one time.  This means you will need to introduce a system that will allow employees to know if it is safe to use these facilities, such as in/out boards or vacant/occupied signage on the door (green/red laminated sheets work great for this).

Where employees would usually obtain food or drink on-site, they now need to bring their own wrapped or contained food and drinks from home.  This also applies to cups, plates and utensils, and any shared items should be removed.

5. Reduction of Touch Points

The reduction of common touch points throughout the workplace is key to reducing the spread of infection.

All high-touch points must be cleaned and disinfected regularly, and you may even want to think consider the following:

  • Can any switches and lights be left on?
  • Can you prop open non-essential doors? (FIRE DOORS MUST BE KEPT CLOSED AT ALL TIMES)
  • Can you remove any shared equipment, or purchase more?
  • Can you remove collaboration equipment, such as whiteboards etc?
  • Can you restrict access to equipment to all but specific persons (e.g. forklift vehicles)?

6. Cleaning & Housekeeping

The introduction of an enhanced cleaning routine is inevitable.

It may be necessary to involve employees as well as cleaning contractors in this, as regular cleaning of high-touch points (e.g. door handles) may need to be performed at regular intervals throughout the day, when your cleaners may not be on-site.

There should be a ready supply of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser throughout the workplace and specifically in high-traffic areas and touch points.

It is also important to manage waste carefully and ensure there is a ready supply of non-touch waste bins and that these are emptied and disposed of regularly throughout the day.

The introduction of controls to reduce the spread of infection and keep employees as safe as possible in the workplace will inevitably impact efficiency, but it is vital that we prioritise these safety measures.

The situation is changing regularly, and it is important to keep up to date with national and industry-specific guidance and be sure to communicate this clearly to your employees.

Dene Mitchell is Director at Armour Risk Consulting, supporting small and medium-sized businesses to ensure they are compliant with all health and safety and fire regulations.  If you need any support with writing your COVID-19 risk assessment, then drop Dene an email at dene.mitchell@armour-risk.co.uk