Risk Assessments – managing your risks during the pandemic

Out-Law News | 29 Oct 2020 | 12:32 pm |

Katherine Metcalfe tells HR News about the challenge of managing risk in the face of ever-changing government guidance.
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    Covid-19 advisory – risk assessments

    The Health & Safety Executive yesterday updated its guidance to employers on risk assessments during the pandemic. HSE is the government agency responsible for the regulation and enforcement of workplace health in the UK and it is a very useful source of information at the current time. The legal duty on employers is to do everything "reasonably practicable" to manage these risks and the onus of demonstrating that falls to the employer - good evidence you've done that is to show you have followed government and industry-led guidance wherever possible. In the current climate that is very challenging – the different parts of the UK government have their own sets of rules and regulations and they change constantly. Commenting on this for Outlaw earlier this year in the midst of the first wave, litigator and health safety specialist Katherine Metcalfe said risk assessments need to be kept under close review as the pandemic plays out but, what we perhaps had not fully appreciated back then, is the divergence of approaches that would be taken by UK government and the devolvedadministrations – the tiered approachfor example – all of which creates a lot of problems for employers when it comes to translating that into effective risk management. Since then Katherine has been advising clients on these issues on a daily basis so to get the latest I phoned Katherine who is based in Glasgow:

    Katherine Metcalfe: “It is becoming increasingly difficult to stay on top of local guidance throughout the UK and to keep risk assessments up to date. As we see different levels of lock downs in different areas clients are having to develop risk assessments for different geographical areas and keep them under constant review, and that's a job in itself. I think it's clear that government is struggling to keep its guidance up to date, to keep up to speed with what the underlying law is, and to track through any changes through all the different layers of guidance that now exists. So it's really important to do that and, actually, I think that the new tiered system has the potential to really help with that because it allows a lot of clients that I'm working with, to look ahead, to look at the risk assessment now and to plan for the changes that would have to be made to that risk assessment, to the measures that are in place in the workplace, depending on what tier any particular area goes into so that they know and what the response will be, what they need to tell their workforce to do differently, and any additional controls that they need to put in place."

    Joe Glavina: "So on a practical level, Katherine, what is involved in putting a risk assessment in place and who would be involved in that?"

    Katherine Metcalfe: "So typically a risk assessment process will be led by operational teams or facilities teams if we're talking about an office environment, with input from the health and safety team to make sure that they've properly followed a risk assessment process of identifying risks and balancing them with the control measures that are available. It's really important, though, to take the workforce with you, they need to be consulted, and organisations should already have a process in place to do that, normally a health and safety committee within that organisation. You may need to convene additional meetings, virtually or in person, to discuss any changes to the risk assessment, but there should be an established process there. After that the key point is really about communicating those changes to people that have to use the risk assessment and that can be by any number of different means, whether that's an email, whether it's sending out a procedure, it could be posters, it could be one-on-one discussions or all of those things. I think what we are starting to see as cases ramp up again are quite a number of problems being caused by absence. So people who are self isolating, people who are contracting Covid-19 as the number of cases increases, and how you actually fill that gap in your workplace because people don't have the right specialist skills to step in, or the supervisor is off ill, and that sort of constant juggling with the people that you've got is quite a significant challenge and gives rise to health and safety risk of increased accidents or things going wrong."

    Joe Glavina: "So what do employers do about that Katherine?"

    Katherine Metcalfe: "You have to you have to plan ahead, you have to take a cold hard look at how you can actually do a piece of work with potentially less people, or different people, what training are they going to need for additional supervision might they need, and in extreme cases actually do you have to stop doing something for a period of time until the right people with the right expertise are back"

    Katherine has written a number of guides for employers on this and many other health and safety issues - you can find all of those on Outlaw.