As we enter 2021 and face further national lockdowns, the Government’s New Year’s message to employers is that they must take “every possible step” to facilitate their employees working from home.
The guidance states that people in England may only leave home to attend work if they cannot reasonably work from home. Employers and employees should therefore discuss their working arrangements and employers should ensure that they do what they can to enable remote working, such as providing suitable IT and equipment.
It is still possible to carry out jobs where it is necessary to work in another person’s home (for example, as a nanny, cleaner, or tradesperson). Otherwise, only employees who genuinely cannot work from home should continue to attend the workplace. Examples given in the guidance of people who cannot work from home include those working in critical national infrastructure, construction and manufacturing, and public sector employees working in essential services (including childcare or education).
Employers are reminded that where employees must go into work, the COVID-19 Secure guidelines should be closely followed to avoid transmission risk.
In addition to the COVID-19 Secure guidelines tailored to their specific workplace setting, employers should have regard to the eight priority actions that apply equally across all workplace settings to protect staff and customers:
- Complete a COVID-19 risk assessment. Share it with staff.
- Clean more often. Increase how often surfaces are cleaned, especially those that are being touched a lot. Ask staff and customers to use hand sanitiser and wash their hands frequently.
- Ask customers to wear face coverings in any indoor space or where required to do so by law. That is especially important if customers are likely to be around people they do not normally meet.
- Make sure everyone is social distancing. Make it easy for everyone to do so by putting up signs or introducing a one-way system that customers can follow.
- Consider ventilation. Read advice on air conditioning and ventilation from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). (This section was updated on 26 November 2020.)
- Take part in NHS test and trace by keeping a record of all customers for 21 days. This became law on 18 September 2020.
- Turn people with coronavirus symptoms away. If a staff member (or someone in their household) or a customer has a persistent cough, a high temperature or has lost their sense of taste or smell, they should be isolating.
- Consider the mental health and wellbeing aspects of COVID-19 for yourself and others. (This step was added on 26 November 2020.)
As well as these eight steps, the COVID-19 Secure guidelines for each workplace setting contain a further set of priority actions which are tailored specifically to the relevant workplace. These are different in each set of guidelines but cover matters such as encouraging the use of contactless payments, reducing crowding, limiting the handling of goods or crockery and cutlery, and lowering background noise.
Application of COVID-19 Secure guidelines in specific workplace settings
The COVID-19 Secure guidelines consider similar steps for employers in each of the workplace settings which apply to:
- Approach to risk. The guidelines consider how, in order of priority, employers can reduce risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures in their workplaces. They recognise that employers cannot completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19.
- Who can return to work. The guidelines look at how employers should approach homeworking, the position of staff who are either “extremely clinically vulnerable” or otherwise vulnerable, employers’ duties under discrimination law. They also remind employers about the need for staff to continue to follow self-isolation advice in the event that they or a member of their household or support bubble experiences COVID-19 symptoms or if they are asked to self-isolate by the NHS test and trace service.
- Communicating about return to work. Employers need to take steps to ensure that all workers understand COVID-19-related safety procedures.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings. The guidelines suggest that in most sectors additional PPE beyond any already used by employers to protect against non-COVID-19 risks will not be beneficial and is not recommended. The government does not expect to see employers relying on face coverings as risk management for the purpose of their health and safety assessments in most sectors.
- Social distancing at work. The guidelines consider several aspects of social distancing in addition to general requirements. These are arriving for and leaving work, moving around the workplace, use of the workplace and workstations, the conduct of meetings and use of common areas. The guidelines for those working in other people’s homes and for those working in and from vehicles differs from the other sets of guidelines in addressing the particular demands of these workplace settings.
- Facilitating verbal communication. The guidelines encourage employers to take steps to avoid individuals needing to unduly raise their voices to each other in the workplace.
- Keeping records of staff and customers. The guidelines consider the records that an employer should maintain to be able to respond in the event of a local outbreak of COVID-19.
- Outbreaks in the workplace. The guidelines consider how an employer should deal with an outbreak of COVID-19 in its workplace
- Shift patterns and working groups. Employers should make changes to the way work is organised to create distinct groups and reduce the number of contacts each employee has.
- Work-related travel. Unnecessary work travel should be avoided, where it cannot be avoided staff need to be kept safe when they travel for work.
- Accidents, security and other incidents. The guidelines briefly confirm that in these circumstances the priority is safety.
- Managing customers, visitors and contractors. We consider the general provisions suggested by the guidelines in respect of third parties. There are specific provisions made by the guidelines for shops and restaurants in respect of customers which we do not summarise.
- In addition, the guidelines consider employer’s approaches to cleaning their workplaces and to how employers deal with inbound and outbound goods.
So the message is clear, home-working will be here for some time to come. But where working from home is not possible then employers should pay strict adherence to the guidelines on keeping the workplace safe. Employees who reasonably believe that the workplace is not safe to return to because it presents an imminent risk of infection and is therefore harmful and unsafe, have protections in law against dismissal or other detrimental action taken against them.