COVID-19: How to ensure a safe return to work

COVID-19: How to ensure a safe return to work


  • Date: Monday 1st June 2020
  • PDF: Download

As businesses gradually open up following the lockdown, companies need to address a wide range of risks in order to effect a safe return to work. For many workplaces it’s going to be difficult to just reopen, as a raft of policies, procedures and working conditions will need to be adjusted. Consideration will also need to be given to the impact of Covid-19 on staff mental health and wellbeing.

Employers should adopt a planned, risk-controlled approach, based on strong leadership, worker involvement and sound health and safety advice. Cross-functional teams should assess the risks for Covid-19 security, together with general health and safety measures before workers return.

So how can this be achieved?

Safe people

A phased approach may need to be adopted, depending on the balance between staff availability and business demand. In some cases, this may necessitate changes in roles, responsibilities and potentially a company / team restructure. Remember to communicate what you are doing and consult with staff regarding any proposed changes.

Due to the closure of various Training Boards and centres, staff may currently be unable to undertake or refresh training. The HSE and some Professional Bodies (including IOSH, FAIB and CITB amongst others) have granted extensions to certification. Companies should identify any safety-critical training and look into alternative training sources, for instance online courses. Remember to balance lowered levels of training with enhanced levels of supervision and monitoring.

Safe systems of work

It is a legal requirement to carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment, and, if a company has more than 50 employees, to display a compliance notice. As we learn more and government guidance changes, risk assessments will need to be reviewed, updated and communicated to the staff.

A key part of the risk assessment process is to set out arrangements for social distancing, such as scheduling and organising work to minimise contact and avoid crowding. Separation of high / low risk teams may also be required. For close work i.e. within 2m, consider:

  • Whether the activity is critical. Should it go ahead?
  • Minimise the number of staff and reduce interface time
  • Assign staff to the same shift teams to limit interaction
  • Have staff work side-by-side or facing away from each other, rather than face-to-face
  • If needed, install protective screens

Personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn as specified in existing risk assessments. However, increased demand for PPE has led to some shortages. If PPE is required as part of a safe system of work, but none is available, the work activity should not proceed.

Safe systems of work should also cover emergency procedures. These will need to include a procedure for staff who fall ill at work, in order to avoid risk of transmission. Companies should consider how to isolate individuals and clean down / disinfect their work area together with any tools and equipment used. An assessment of first aid and fire warden should be conducted, taking into account potentially reduced numbers of trained staff. Businesses may wish to consider sharing emergency cover with other companies working on the same premises. Higher risk activities should be stopped if possible or kept to an absolute minimum.

Bear in mind that the HSE has issued new Covid-19 RIDDOR reporting requirements.

Safe travel

Staff should be made aware of measures to safely travel to work, such as avoiding using public transport - especially during peak times. If possible, employees should travel alone and not share a vehicle. However, in circumstances where this is unavoidable, they should:

  • Share with the same group of people
  • Maintain good ventilation - open windows
  • Sanitise hands before getting in / after getting out
  • Regularly clean the vehicle – with particular emphasis on handles and other surfaces / touchpoints

Safe workplace

Businesses should assess how many entrances are needed and where these should be located. Where queues are likely, apply social distancing measures via demarcation, including directional arrows, one-way systems and passing points on pedestrian routes. Staggered start and finish times may be required to ease congestion at peak times. Sanitising stations should be installed at all entrances and clear, instructional signage displayed. Lift capacity should be reduced, and staff should preferentially use stairs.

Regular breaks will need to programmed to allow staff time to wash / sanitise hands. If the premises have been closed for a period of time, it may be necessary to carry out a deep-clean before reopening. Cleaning rotas and checklists should be established, and enhanced cleaning procedures put in place for communal areas, welfare facilities and touchpoints – taps, door handles, push plates, handrails, equipment controls.

Guidance from Public Health England has highlighted the need for businesses to flush out the water supply in their buildings before they reopen, in order to prevent spreading the potentially deadly bacteria Legionella. This is especially the case for businesses that use a lot of water in their work, such as dental practices, hairdressers, gyms and hotels, but is also relevant to firms operating within office buildings as a way to stop bacterial growth.

Hopefully this has been a useful reminder, signposting just a few of the measures to take when preparing for a return to work.

Our Enhanced Support Pack is also still available to download, by visiting our online shop here. The Enhanced pack contains a range of resources to help you manage health, safety and HR elements arising as a result of coronavirus. These resources include access to a webinar, documents containing over 80 significant health, safety and HR issues for consideration, risk assessments and checklists, and much more.   

Further advice and resources are available on the SSG website.

Stay safe and keep well!

Source: Julie Hutt 


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