There is a lot of talk about what the “new normal” will be in terms of office based environments. Some predict that home working will be more prevalent, there could be less face to face contact, less time spent travelling and increased use of video calls. I am not so sure about the future but it feels like all of this has some relevance.
Many businesses will be considering a staggered return to work, both in terms of the dates people start back in the office and also the possible introduction of shift work as they consider the physical working environment. This thinking is likely to be accelerated by the Prime Minister appearing to change the Government’s position on the wearing of face masks as necessary to give people “confidence” to return to work. It’s also likely that additional hygiene procedures, physical screens and the use of protective equipment will need to be considered.
It is unlikely that office based environments will be able to safely accommodate a full workforce with immediate effect. There are practical issues.Think of the use of lifts for example. Lift access for some organisations would be essential – how will that work? Getting people in and out of offices would be a protracted process if limited numbers were allowed and disability access would also need to be looked at. It’s more that employers would be better placed to truly consider if working from home continues for as many employees as possible for as long as possible.
What factors will employers need to consider in terms of a safe working environment?
Employer’s legal duties would focus on being aware of risk and new rules imposed under legislation or Government guidance. The obvious implication being that employers will need to consider the work they do and carry out a risk assessment. As a reminder, Health and Safety duties would be to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees whilst at work. In addition, there must be consideration of The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.
Legal liability is likely to arise in two ways:
- Breach of an employer’s common law duty to provide a safe place/system of work
- Employers being vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their employees
Employers are not expected to eliminate all risks but will need to do everything reasonably practicable to protect people from harm. They must keep abreast of advice and knowledge – as much as is reasonable. Employers need to be mindful that by reducing the risk of infection to Covid-19 they do not expose employees to other, preventable risks. This means that the workspace environment must be a core focus and attention paid to basics such as ergonomics, breaks, lighting, equipment and onsite toilet and canteen facilities.
An amended health and safety policy and risk assessment should be produced to evidence risks assessed and actions taken or not taken. This will fundamentally cover adherence to Government Guidance and Legislation that is likely to include:
- Rules around vulnerable individuals with known risk factors
- Provision of PPE, such as face masks and gloves
- Personal cleaning
- Covid – 19 testing regimes – permissions/data protection/consequences
- Workplace cleaning
- Screens and partitions as required
- Social distancing rules
- Use of NHS app
- Visitors and contractors
- Working from home
Whilst all the above are critical, the most important guidance is likely to be social distancing within the office environment. Notices regarding observation of social distancing in the office should be visible. We have already seen the HSE say that enforcement action will be taken against employers to control public health risks if not taking steps to socially distance.
Governmental guidance on personal protective equipment is still rather unclear but it appears that best practice would be taking account of evidence of hygiene advice and consideration of the provision of masks and gloves.
Employers should put in place and enforce social distancing, adopt good hygiene practices and clear consequences to individual employees who fail to observe social distancing rules.
What then for employees?
Most businesses are naturally engaged with staff to establish thinking and dialogue to make a success of what they do. Employers must account for concerns or queries which staff may have. This is likely to focus on getting to and from the workplace, personal vulnerabilities, the workplace itself, the employer’s approach to flexible working and what obligations they have if they suffer Covid-19 symptoms or have close contact with those that have.
Steve Green Consultancy Ltd