Returning to work after lockdown: ensuring the safety of your employees in the workplace

By Andrew O'Hara

With the lockdown rules starting to ease off, organisations are faced with the challenge of preparing for their employees returning to work. This is by no means an easy feat as the threat of COVID-19 is still real and present and the psychological impact of the pandemic will be felt by many for a long time. 

Paul Farmer, CBE and Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind states that: “Adjustments can present challenges, including to the mental health and wellbeing of the UK workforce. As lockdown measures begin to lift, staff will be looking to their employers to provide guidance during these uncertain times.”[3] 

Indeed, it’s going to be down to senior management to make these decisions on how best to support their employees during this difficult time. Having open discussions and regularly communicating plans and what to expect will be crucial in this. 

Planning a safe return to the workplace 

The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) have published seven key steps for establishing a safe workplace for employees:  

  1. Establish a response team for COVID-19 
  2. Understand how the virus is spread 
  3. Carry out a risk assessment 
  4. Engage with staff concerns 
  5. Support changes in behaviour 
  6. Implement risk control measures 
  7. Monitor, review and learn [2] 

These steps are the building blocks for implementing a proactive safety culture in relation to the coronavirus, which is key to keeping the workplace safe. Step 7 ensures that organisations are continually reviewing the effectiveness of their risk controls in order to make changes if needed. Not only is this effective, but it also provides assurance to employees that their health and safety is being made a priority, which may help to ease the anxiety about being back in the workplace. 

Carry out a risk assessment

A key part of risk assessing the workplace for COVID-19 related risks is providing support and controls to protect vulnerable staff members. These are the people who are most at risk should they come into contact with the virus and include:  

  1. Anyone aged 70 or over 
  2. Pregnant women 
  3. Chronic respiratory conditions 
  4. Chronic heart or liver disease 
  5. Neurological conditions 
  6. A weakened immune system 

Staff in these categories should stay home as much as possible to minimise the risk to their health. When returning to the workplace, employers may need to put specific measures in place for them. This might include a staggered return, separate working spaces or reduced hours. 

Engage with staff concerns 

Taking on board how your employees feel about returning to work is vital. Legally, employers cannot force employees to go to work if they don’t feel safe doing so. Amanda Mackenzie OBE Chief Executive, BITC states: “We want people coming back to work motivated to build back better: if we are not thoughtful about a good return, we will create workplaces which are filled with fear, unhappiness and doubt.”[3] Planning the return to work should be a two-way conversation to include your employees’ thoughts and concerns in the decision making process. 

Understandably, people may be feeling a great deal of anxiety about returning to a place populated with a number of people after months of being told to stay at home and socially distance from others. On top of this, each person’s situation is likely to differ. Some may live with family members who are vulnerable, have caring responsibilities or may be classed as vulnerable themselves. All these factors need to be taken into consideration to ensure that employees feel both physically and psychologically safe at work.  

Support changes in behaviour 

Social distancing is the most important way of preventing and avoiding the spread of COVID-19. In the past couple of months, this has included staying at home and not interacting with other people unless absolutely necessary. Supermarkets and other essential businesses have placed markers both outside and inside stores to ensure shoppers maintain a two-metre distance apart, with limited numbers of people allowed in at any given time. 

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have published guidance on working safely during the coronavirus outbreak. This includes addressing current work activities and the way people enter and move around the building to implement social distancing rules. Some examples include staggering arrival times, placing markers on the floors and redesigning workstations. Reducing face to face contact as much as possible might mean hosting virtual meetings, even if employees are situated in the same building; keeping up contact-free deliveries and re-evaluating how areas like kitchens and smoking areas can be used. 

Driving Continuity in the ‘New Normal’  

Our health and safety expert Jane Murdoch is leading a webinar in partnership with SHP to look at how businesses are coping in the current situationShe will talk about prioritising the health of your employees alongside maintaining business continuity during difficult times.  

Register your interest to gain a knowledgeable insight into business continuity during uncertainty to help you implement your returning to work risk assessment and policies.  

[1]CIPD, covid-19: returning to the workplace:  https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/employees/workplace-guide-returning-after-coronavirus 

[2] CIEHF, Creating a safe workplace during covid-19: https://www.ergonomics.org.uk/common/Uploaded%20files/Publications/CIEHF-Creating-a-Safe-Workplace.pdf 

[3] SOM, Returning to the workplace after the covid-19 Lockdown: https://www.som.org.uk/Returning_to_the_workplace_COVID-19_toolkit_FINAL.pdf 

 

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