Keeping your staff safe under recent government guidelines

Wednesday September 30, 2020

With COVID-19 cases accelerating, the government issued another set of guidelines in late September. You probably feel that you and your staff are waking up to a fresh set of challenges every day.

A strong emphasis on working from home wherever possible has been proclaimed. However, the official guidance stops short of making this mandatory, leaving the final decision to employers and their staff:

“Where people must go into work for their job, their mental health, their well-being or whatever it happens to be, then of course they should do so. What we are saying is that they should work from home if they can.”

Since we are dealing with an illness, it is easy to focus purely on physical safety. This is perfectly understandable, but your employees’ mental health is equally important. You will need to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of remote working and office working, taking into account the psychological effects of each along with the physical risks.

Staying at home

It’s the government’s intention that many people will continue, or revert to, working from home. If you will be aligning with this, it would be good practice to review the home working set up of your team from a health and safety perspective. What may have passed as a short term emergency fix could need a rethink with a forecast of this being the norm for a further six months.

As well as considerations like a comfy workstation to help with posture, and a display screen risk assessment, the mental health impact will be a significant factor. So much so that the government recognises that the only way to manage it may be to abort home working and get them back in the office.

It important to remember that the homes of your employees become an ‘extension’ of your workplace and therefore you will be required to support them in the same way you would whilst at the office.
Organisations involved in remote/home working will need policies and procedures in place, along with a robust risk assessment to make sure they manage the hazards effectively.

If you are reopening the office

If staff strongly wish to return, or you need certain staff in the office, then opening up the workplace is still allowed. However, reactions to the events of the last six months have varied greatly, and just as some workers are desperate to interact once more and return to the workplace, others might be terrified of doing so.

The term “Coronaphobia” has been coined to describe the extreme anxiety that some people feel about returning to the outside world. You will need to strike a balance between sympathising with these concerns and helping staff members to put their fears into perspective.

You may encounter the unfortunate scenario of needing a certain staff member to return when they simply don’t feel safe doing so. In this case, you should try to work with them to create a risk assessment and COVID safety plan to assuage their fears.

If a dispute arises, you should ensure that you follow the correct HR processes, as forcing a staff member to return against their will could lead to a tribunal if they perceived there to be an immediate threat to their health (regardless of whether there actually was one). Something not so far-fetched in 2020.

Safety is still paramount

Whether you opt for remote working, a return to the office, or a mixture of the two, safety remains crucial. We have already mentioned the need to review your risk assessment for home workers. You will, of course, already know the level of work it will take to make the office COVID-safe. We have covered this extensively in recent weeks, but it is worth recapping some of the main points.

Surfaces should be cleaned regularly, especially those in shared areas, and visitors should be asked to sanitise their hands and wear a mask when possible (there are exceptions, for example relating to disability). Social distancing remains important, and you could consider additional signage or a one way system to facilitate this. You should also continue to keep records of all staff and visitors for 21 days in order to assist the NHS Test and Trace service. This is now enforceable in law.

For further help

The next few months will be all about finding balance. The balance between mental health and physical safety. The balance between sympathising with anxious staff and helping them to get back to normal. None of this will be easy. We are all in uncharted territory here. So don’t hesitate to ask us for help.

Sensible Safety Solutions

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