Following recent Government announcements, the time has come to consider a phased return to places of work.
Obviously, given the unprecedented nature of Covid-19, such a process will be riddled with confusion for both employers and employees – how will the return to work operate?
Health and safety
Employers must now face the challenge of determining how they can facilitate a return to work, whilst mitigating the health and safety risks associated with such a transition. On Monday, 11 May 2020 the Government published the “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines to assist employers with this. Before attempting any form of return, it is pivotal that employers familiarise themselves with not only these guidelines, but also other relevant guidance of both the Government and of Public Health England to ensure they have the most up-to-date information available to them to help navigate this inevitably tricky task.
The COVID-19 secure guidelines, split into eight individual sector guides to allow specific industry focus, provide valuable advice on how employers can facilitate the workplace return from a health and safety perspective. Where employers have work covering more than one sector, they may need to review more than one guide to ensure they implement the correct procedures throughout their business.
Work from home
Fundamentally, it is important to note at the outset that the guidelines make it clear that those employees who can work from home, should continue to do so. Therefore, employers must not require their employees’ attendance in the workplace simply because this may be logistically simpler. Instead, employers must continue to support and encourage homeworking where feasible. Only where working from home is not an option should employees be brought back to work.
In instances where a return to the workplace is deemed necessary, a COVID-19 risk assessment must be undertaken by the employer prior to the return commencing. As part of this assessment, employers must consult as to proposed actions the business can take to tackle Covid-19, consider employee suggestions and agree the measures that will be implemented upon the return to the workplace in order to reduce any identified risks to acceptable levels. Depending on the size of the business, this consultation may take place with individual employees, elected employee representatives or a health and safety representative chosen by a recognised Trade Union. Employers must make sure that during this consultation they listen to their employee’s concerns and take reasonable steps to quell, or at least reduce risks to acceptable levels and continue monitoring the position.
The more consideration and support an employer gives to its employees during this difficult and worrying time, the less likely it is the employer will face claims under health and safety legislation. Employers should reiterate throughout the process that the safety and well-being of employees is the number one priority.
This will undoubtably be a concerning time for employers and employees alike. Communication will be key to ensuring all parties feel as comfortable as possible during the return to the workplace and for the foreseeable future after this.