Following Len McCluskey’s call (General Secretary Unite Union) for employees to refuse to return to work if there is no safe environment for them to do so, how do employers and managers help their staff to come back to work and feel safe? In this week’s blog we discuss what employers can do.

The Department for Business and Industrial Strategy this week published detailed guidance for eight separate workplaces, following consultation with employers, trade unions, Public Health England, the Health & Safety Executive and the devolved administrations.

The Government outlined five practical steps employers can take to support their people returning to work. These are:

  • Work from home where possible
  • Perform Covid-19 risk assessments and publish online
  • Maintain two metres’ social distancing, wherever possible
  • Where social distancing is not possible, manage virus transmission risk with barriers, change shift patterns and minimise the number of people working together, and
  • Improve cleaning measures.

The CIPD also released three key factors to take into account before they advise employers to re-open offices and work spaces:

Is it essential? – If people can continue to work from home, they must continue to do that for the foreseeable future. If they cannot, is their work deemed essential or could the business continue furlough them for longer to give them the time needed to put safety measures and clear employee guidance and consultation in place?

Is it safe? – Employers have a duty of care to identify and manage risks to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to. This will involve social distancing measures, potentially reconfiguring workspaces and common areas, possible changes to working hours to reduce risk of exposure, and increased cleaning measures. Employers should gradually test these measures in practice and ensure they can work with larger numbers before encouraging more of their workforce back.

Is it mutually agreed? – CIPD research found that four in 10 people are anxious about returning to work and there are concerns people could be forced back. It says it’s vital there is a clear dialogue between employers and their people so concerns, such as commuting, can be raised and individuals’ needs and worries taken into account. There needs to be flexibility on both sides to accommodate different working schedules as ways of managing some of these issues.

Covid secure workplaces

Offices

Employees should continue to work from where possible. People needed on-site might include workers in roles critical for “operational continuity, safe facility management or regulatory requirements” and which cannot be performed remotely. Individuals who are unable to work remotely due to home circumstances or the unavailability of necessary equipment might also be included at the office.

For those staff that come to the office, employers should begin by ensuring that staff who would ordinarily travel by public transport have places to park their cars or bikes, as well as changing facilities for those opting to cycle or run to work. Staggering arrival and departure as well as break times should be considered. One-way systems should be created where possible to minimise contact among people. Employers should review layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart from each other. Using floor tape to mark areas to help workers keep two metres apart. Where it is not possible to move workstations further apart, arrange people to work side by side or facing away from each other rather than face-to-face. If workstations cannot be positioned further apart, use screens to separate people from each other.

Employers should avoid the use of hot desks but, where not possible, workstations and any shared equipment should be cleaned and sanitised between different occupants.

If meetings cannot be held remotely, they should involve only people who are completely necessary and be held outside where possible.

Work areas and equipment should be cleaned regularly, as should objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, such as door handles and keyboards, making sure there are adequate disposal arrangements. Use of high-touch items and equipment, like printers or whiteboards, should be restricted. Workspaces should be cleared and waste and employees’ belongings removed at the end of a shift.

Construction and other outdoor work

Some of the recommendations, such staggering clock-on and clock-off times and breaks apply across the board. In construction, employers also need to consider creating zones on a site to minimise the chance of workers spreading the virus. Hand tools, controls and machinery should be sanitised after use. The government has not recommended additional personal protective equipment (PPE).

Factories, plant and warehouses

Employers need to ensure surfaces that are regularly touched are frequently cleaned and that hand sanitiser is made available. Shifts should have the same people working, to minimise social contact.

Deliveries should be larger and less frequent to minimise contact with visitors. Again, the government has not recommended additional PPE.

Labs and research facilities

As well as the relevant guidelines above, recommendations include moving access controls on low category labs so that people do not have to use access cards and introducing one-way flow through buildings, paying particular attention to long corridors which can be more common in lab buildings.

Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery

Guidance includes minimising contact between kitchen workers, front-of-house workers and delivery drivers, by, for example, having zones from which delivery drivers can collect packaged food items. Employers should install screens between front of house workers and customers where possible, encourage contactless payments, and limit access to premises for customers collecting takeaways. Two-metre demarcations should be made available for customers queuing and people should be asked to wait in their cars. Restaurants should ask customers to order online or over the telephone to reduce queues and stagger pick-up times.

Other people’s homes

This guidance applies to those working in, visiting or delivering to home environments, for example people providing repair services, meter readers, plumbers, cleaners, cooks and surveyors even delivery drivers momentarily at the door.

Workers should discuss with households ahead of a visit to ask that a two-metre distance is observed, for internal doors to be left open to minimise contact with handles. Staff should identify busy areas, for example, stairs and corridors, and minimise movements within these areas. They should bring their own food and drink and take breaks outside where possible.

The government recommends using a fixed pairing system if people have to work in close proximity – for example during two-person assembly or maintenance – and allocating the same workers to a household where jobs are repetitive.

Vehicles

This include anyone who works in or from a vehicle, including “couriers, mobile workers, lorry drivers, on-site transit, work vehicles and field forces”.

The guidance includes frequent cleaning of equipment, objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, such as door handles, fuel pumps and vehicle keys, and making sure there are adequate disposal arrangements; encouraging workers to wash hands before boarding vehicles; and retaining sufficient quantities of hand sanitiser or wipes within vehicles to enable workers to clean hands after each delivery or drop-off.

Shops

The guidance for shops and branches applies to businesses that are currently open, such as pharmacies and food shops, as well as others retail units currently closed but which might be able to open next month.

The government says these businesses should calculate the number of customers that can follow two-metre social distancing within the store, taking into account not only total floor space but also “pinch points” such as doorways. Limit the number of customers in-store at any one time.

As far as possible, where workers are split into teams or shift groups, fix these so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people. Identify areas where people have to directly pass things to each other and find ways to remove direct contact such as by using drop-off points or transfer zones.

Peter Cheese from CIPD added “We have a long road ahead to get Britain back to work, but by taking the time to think through workplace protections and by engaging with staff, businesses will be in a much better position to bring people back at the right time and in the right way.”