As attention turns to getting Britain back to work, we share some key considerations to facilitate a smooth return to the workplace and highlight some risks that employers should bear in mind.

The most recent Government guidance places a firm obligation on employers to assess health and safety risks to staff. The nature of these will depend on both the type of business and the workspace. The key consideration is to ensure that social distancing can be maintained and to avoid congested areas.

Employers should be prepared for spot checks from the Health and Safety Executive or Unions, as well as staff seeking reassurance that adequate steps have been taken and are maintained.

Employers should continue to follow Government, NHS and World Health Organisation guidance. Current guidance can be found here.

Risks to employers

  • Employees are protected from detriment and dismissal if they raise concerns, leave or refuse to return to a place of work, or take appropriate steps to protect themselves in circumstances of ‘serious or imminent danger.’ All employees (including Health and Safety Representatives) can bring a claim if they have been subjected to detrimental treatment or dismissal for raising such a complaint and do not need two years’ service to bring such a claim.
  • Workers who make protected disclosures are protected from detriment and dismissal. Raising a concern relating to health and safety is likely, in most circumstances, to constitute a protected disclosure for the purposes of whistleblowing. Raising concerns about the safety of the workplace is likely to be seen as being in the public interest and satisfy this requirement for a concern being a protected disclosure.
  • A lack of consistency in approach towards workers requesting different working arrangements, may give rise to discrimination claims, in particular giving rise to the possibility of disability, maternity or age discrimination claims. This is relevant because those with underlying health conditions or who are pregnant, and those over 70, have been provided with different guidance relating to shielding, to other workers.
  • Employers will need to consider carefully how best to manage those in the workforce who are particularly vulnerable, or who live with or care for vulnerable people without discriminating against them. Women are more likely to fulfil caring responsibilities for vulnerable people outside of work, in families for example, and therefore may be disproportionately affected.
  • Employees are entitled to reasonable time off for family and dependants. Whilst this has generally been interpreted as allowing time off in emergencies to make arrangements for care, rather than a right to remain home and provide care themselves, while schools and nurseries remain closed, a more flexible approach is likely to be needed.

Key steps for employers

  • Assess the workspace – before staff return to work, a health and safety risk assessment must be carried out to consider risks posed by the workspace, particularly proximity to colleagues, clients and customers. Employers will be required to consult with employee representatives.
  • Consider working hours and travel – only those who can walk, cycle or drive to work should travel to work under current guidance and only if they cannot perform their role from home. Once Government guidance changes to permit use of public transport where no other means of travel is possible, it is reasonable to expect that staff travelling into busy city centres will be concerned about commuting at peak times so employers should consider changing start and end times to avoid requiring staff to travel during the busiest periods.
  • Can staff remain working from home? Keeping some staff working at home, where this is possible will also minimise contact and allow for greater social distancing in the workplace.
  • Put in place measures to minimise social contact in the workplace:
    • Arranging workstations so that they are two metres apart and employees are not working face-to-face.
    • Access to communal areas should be limited.
    • Employees should use their own mugs and crockery rather than shared items.
  • Avoid congestion on entry to and exit from the workplace – limit the number of people using any lift. Work with other employers in the same building. Stagger start times to avoid delays in entering the office and crowded entrances. Consider leaving doors open if it is safe to limit the touching of doors.
  • Facilities – it is likely to be safer to keep onsite gyms, fitness studios and cafes closedthough this may change if risk decreases.
  • Limit the number of external visitors and meetings to only essential meetings – consider whether meetings can continue to take place virtually.
  • Hygiene – provide hand sanitiser, hand wipes and soap, and encourage staff to regularly wash their hands. Increase the frequency of cleaning, deep-cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, including handrails on staircases.
  • Send staff who develop COVID-19 symptoms home for seven days from the onset of symptoms.
  • Listen to concerns that staff may raise about commuting and the workplace – provide support to those dealing with stress, anxiety or bereavement. Consult with employee representatives regarding employees’ concerns about returning to the workplace.
  • Keep in regular contact with staff working from home – to monitor their mental and physical well-being, and provide necessary support.