Managing the risk and preventing the spread of deadly coronavirus in the workplace
Published 24 August 2020
In the current climate employers are facing many new and difficult challenges and protecting staff from coronavirus (Covid-19) is of paramount importance.
Workplaces have to be safe. Employers must manage risks associated with re-starting or running a business during the pandemic.
Under the law employers are responsible for health and safety management (1). All businesses have a duty to what is practicable to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business.
A risk assessment should be carried out to address all risks associated with Covid-19 in the workplace.
The virus is highly contagious. It can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with the virus coughs or exhales (2). The droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person which can infect other people by touching them, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
To combat the spread of the virus employers should start by updating workplace risk assessments. It will help an organisation to better understand what it should do to work safely and protect people.
With lockdown restrictions eased more employees have now returned to the workplace. Many more are expected to do so when the government furlough scheme finally ends in October. (3)
Large scale Covid-19 workplace outbreaks have seen entire towns put at risk of a local lockdown. A sandwich-making factory where hundreds of workers tested positive was temporarily closed (4). Workers at Northampton site, where almost 300 people were found to have the virus had to go into self-isolation.
It came as Northampton was added to a government watchlist as an ‘Area of Intervention’.
This followed 76 staff at a factory in Lincoln testing positive for the virus. At the time the outbreak led to the town being put on a ‘red list’ for a week (5).
Workplaces have had to change, and will have to change, to prevent such outbreaks. Employers must take reasonable steps to protect workers and others from coronavirus.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says a COVID-19 risk assessment will help to manage risk (6).
HSE guidance says an employer must:
- Identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus
- Think about who could be at risk
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed
- Act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk
An employer with less than five employees does not have to write anything down, but it is advisable to do so.
The government urged employers to read all relevant guides when it provided practical actions for businesses to take based on five main steps to working safely during the pandemic.
In summary those steps are (7):
- Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment
Carry out a risk assessment in line with the HSE guidance.
- Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures
This should include increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning
- Help people to work from home
You should take all reasonable steps to help people work from home.
- Maintain 2m social distancing, where possible
Where possible, you should maintain 2m between people, which can include signs emphasising social distancing guidance, floor tape or paint to mark areas to help people keep to a 2m distance and one-way traffic through the workplace if possible
- Where people cannot be 2m apart, manage transmission risk
Where it’s not possible for people to be 2m apart, you should do everything practical to manage the transmission risk, which can include: assessing if a specific activity needs to continue, using screens or barriers to separate people from each other and staggering arrival and departure times
(1) Employers are responsible for health and safety management [Internet] www.legislation.gov.uk [Cited 24.8.2020] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1974/37/contents
(2) How does Coronavirus spread? [Internet] www.england.nhs.uk [Cited 24.8.2020] https://www.england.nhs.uk/coronavirus/primary-care/about-covid-19/virus-transmission/
(3) Back to work since lockdown has eased? [Internet] www.gov.uk [Cited 24.8.2020] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-extends-furlough-scheme-until-october
(4) Covid-19 workplace outbreaks [Internet] www.bbc.co.uk [Cited 24.8.2020] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-northamptonshire-53860426?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/ckgj739plxnt/employment&link_location=live-reporting-story
(5) Lincoln factory covid outbreak [Interrnet] www.thelincolnite.co.uk [Cited 24.8.20] https://thelincolnite.co.uk/2020/08/lincoln-on-covid-19-red-list-due-to-newark-outbreak/
(6) What employers must do according to HSE guidance [Internet] www.hse.gov.uk [Cited 24.8.2020] https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/risk-assessment.htm
(7) Summarty of working safetly [Internet] www.gove.uk [Cited 24.8.2020] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/5-steps-to-working-safely
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