COVID-19: Prepare to recover to the ‘new’ normal

The Coronavirus Threat

As the peak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is passing, many businesses are planning their return to less restricted operations – a recovery phase or preparing for the ‘new’ normal. Clearly there is going to be a staged easing of the lockdown and social distancing rules. It is possible that there may be degrees of tightening again if infection rates rise. Some situations may need face masks.

In this paper, Finch Consulting’s health and safety expert Steve Cowley and health and safety lawyer Sue Dearden explore leading expert advice.

“Finch has continued to support clients throughout lockdown, we have already started discussions with some on how to get back to work.” Dom Barraclough, Managing Director, Finch Consulting 

With its unique engineering, health and safety, environmental and legal services capability, Finch is in a good place to assist you with the establishment of new procedures and practices to minimise risk to your employees and visitors.

Employees and customers

You may have suspended operations completely, reduced activity, become busier or changed the way you do things forever. Regardless, you will have been impacted and during the recovery phase that we are entering, planning for the continued protection of employees and others is essential.

Matt Longley explains that there is widespread concern about the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Particularly at risk are those whose jobs are or were insecure, those who have vulnerable family members and those who are just worried. We must recognise mental health and wellbeing too and provide support.

It will be necessary to identify what work can continue to be undertaken from home and what can be undertaken in the workplace while maintaining social distancing. Remember, home workers will need health and safety assessments.

“Consider what can be done to minimise infection risk at work. But, prioritise, some tasks can wait.” Dr Richard Brown, Principal Consultant, Finch Consulting

Necessary tasks might include equipment, plant, and machinery modifications, getting enough of the right PPE and hand cleansers (know the difference between bacterial and viral cleansing), and installing additional hand washing stations.

Remember, if shift patterns are not now crossing over, review how you manage handovers. Ensure you are still passing information effectively between shifts, especially on health and safety issues, perhaps adopt more formal methods.

You will need to plan for customer-facing employee protection. In the food industry, good hygiene has always been in use: hand hygiene and hygienic clothing with PPE is routine. The addition of a face mask would be a small change, and extension of these measures to customer-facing roles is relatively straight forward.

Returning and new employees will need to understand COVID-19 symptom reporting procedures and how they might transmit the virus to others at risk, for example, employees living with NHS or care home workers.

Contractors and Visitors

Before Finch consultants visit your site there are several things we will do – Finch Operations Director, Janine Watterson, recommends that, before any visitors or contractors come to your site, you ask them to do the same.

We will ask you about your policy on COVID-19 and we will provide you with a copy of ours. We will request information about what you would like us to do before and during our visit, what contact we will need to have with your staff, and we will talk with you about our mutual expectations. This is no different to normal health and safety risk management.

If a Finch team member suspects that they may have been exposed to a carrier of the virus or if they have any symptoms, they will not attend client sites or the Finch offices.

Before travelling and attending worksites we always undertake a risk assessment. Currently this includes the ways we minimise risk the risk of exposure en route and at the destination throughout the visit. As a minimum, on site we will maintain social distancing, we will wash our hands, we will wear an orinasal mask or face covering while on site. We expect any of your employees, who may have contact with ours, to do the same.

“Our masks protect your employees. Your masks protect ours.”Dr Steve Cowley

Other Health & Safety Risks

It will be necessary to ensure that all routine risk control measures are up to date and in place. Risk assessments and training must be up to date. It may be that revised training is necessary to account for modifications to tasks as a result of interim methods of working and social distancing, and for first aiders.

Training expert Martin White explains that interactive techniques such as online questionnaires, which Finch can write and produce for you, are a great way to help convey information and check understanding of new control measures before returning to work or following any changes in your workplace.

“Use tailored questionnaires to check your employees understanding.” Martin White

Workplace reorganisation to achieve social distancing may introduce a range of hazards. For example, manual handling may increase, and social distancing may lead to individuals attempting to undertake work that is usually shared. Manual handling risk assessments will need to be reviewed and refreshed.

Changes to workplace layout to achieve social distancing could require temporary workstations or inclusion of barriers and shields. These should not compromise good ergonomics and should not result in power cables across the floor creating new trip hazards or blocking fire exit routes Make sure changes to the workplace layout and tasks do not adversely impact workplace traffic management and that forklift-pedestrian separation is not compromised.

“You will need to identify risks due to any inactivity.” Richard Hoyle

Richard Hoyle advises that there may be challenges with arranging statutory inspections such as lifting equipment, pressure equipment, local exhaust ventilation and cooling towers (legionella) and, Clare Fowell warns not to forget that adjustments to Environmental Permits will need to be continually reviewed.

Pest infestation, legionella growth in stagnant water, leaks of stored hazardous substances, accumulation of liquids or gases in confined spaces, water in bunds, increased waste storage, treatment of effluent are all examples of issues arising because of inactivity. Tristan Pulford cautions, before reusing any machinery that has been standing, consider the safety consequences as well as detrimental effects on asset life, and plan a detailed pre-start inspection and start up routine.

“Don’t restart machinery, plant and equipment without a detailed plan.” Tristan Pulford

In summary

Steve Cowley states that the process of risk and change management is the same as it was before: identify the hazards arising from change, assess and document the risks, involve the people who do the work, engage with relevant expertise, adopt reasonable and effective risk controls. There are many things to think about and to address and coming out of lock- down is much more challenging than entering it, but in many ways COVID-19 is just a new hazard to risk assess.

As we enter the long evolving recovery phase it is of paramount importance that risk assessments are reviewed often and documentation is kept right up to date and very clear. In any case, as Julia Thomas points out, the HSE remains active.

“Perhaps this is a great opportunity to get risk assessments up to date.” Julia Thomas

Sue Dearden explains that the law has always recognised the balance between commercial and the health, safety and environmental considerations (with a very strong bias towards the later) – there is more discussion on this than ever before, and perceptions and tolerability will evolve. But, remember nothing has really changed: identifying hazards and assessing the risk, getting the balance right, has always been a requirement.

Finch can support your organisation as we all recover to the ‘new’ normal post-COVID-19