Covid-19 advisory – health & safety issues with staff returning to work

Out-Law News | 22 Sep 2020 | 12:00 am |

Katherine Metcalfe advises employers on their duty of care to staff returning to work. (view from 5.37 mins)
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  • Transcript

    With employees returning to their usual workplaces in increasing numbers as the furlough scheme winds down, the government has updated its guidance on working safely in office and similar workspaces during the pandemic.   This is ongoing guidance for employers and employees which is updated every time the government brings in new rules in its efforts to balance public health with limiting damage to the economy. As it does in every version of the guidance, the government makes it clear to employers that it does not replace existing health and safety duties, but instead should be considered carefully whenever employers are assessing risk and implementing control measures. According to the latest ONS figures, around two thirds, 60%, of adults reported commuting to work last week – a figure that has almost doubled since May. However, the number of people working from home hasn't fallen by very much and is unlikely to fall any time soon. The CIPD puts that down to an improved quality of life for employees, along with a boost in productivity, which is fuelling an “unprecedented” rise in remote working. That's according to the CIPD's new study of more than 1,000 employers, funded by the government, report called "Embedding new ways of working". It shows the majority of employers now intend to offer this on a regular basis. So therein lies the challenge for employers, not least from the health and safety point of view, because you'll have some staff working long term from home, setting up a home office as best they can, and others travelling into the workplace and expecting it to be safe. So it is a tricky position for employers to be in right now so what, if anything, should they be doing about it? It is a question I put to Katherine Metcalfe:

    Katherine Metcalfe: “Employers are really, I guess, trying to tread two paths at the moment. One is to get people back to work and into their normal working environment and put in place safe working procedures to achieve that. So the key thing there is to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment and review the operating procedures that you're going to have at a very practical level in your premises to actually implement social distancing, safe cleaning procedures and those kind of things. The government has issued guidance suggesting that people should publish the results of their risk assessment on their website and you need to think quite carefully about what you are going to publish and how you convey that to the public and employees. It's really important to take employees with you on this journey. There will be a range of different attitudes about returning to the workplace and you need to consult from a legal perspective through your usual channels, whether that's a health and safety committee, it might be a survey, it might be one-on-one engagement with employees with particular issues, but really, consulting about what is going to be put in place, giving instruction and training on how to follow any new procedures in the workplace, and checking-in regularly to make sure those are working. So that's where people are returning to their normal workplace. There will still continue to be a significant number of people working from home and we know that a lot of our clients are now thinking about whether some of those arrangements should be made permanent. There are quite important health and safety considerations to think about too, particularly around IT equipment, and workstations. There are some thorny issues to grapple with about whether employers need to be providing employees with that equipment in a home environment and if they do then what the other health and safety implications that flow from that might be. For example, in relation to making sure that equipment is fit for purpose, maintaining it, conducting PAT testing and providing training on how to use it. So, a lot to think about there, whether employees are coming back to work or indeed staying at home.”