In this article Finch experts Julia Thomas and Stephen Cowley explain the five practical steps that can be followed to ensure your company is COVID secure. They also explain your obligations as an employer and ways to ensure employees comply with guidelines.
Between 10 April 2020 and 11 July 2020 a total of 7,971 COVID-19 disease reports were made by employers to the HSE and local authorities (HSE 20/07/2020). Of reported employee COVID infections, 119 were fatal. The criteria for making RIDDOR reports is explained in one of the Finch articles on our journal page which can be found here.
Sectors with most notifications
The majority of the notifications came from those workplaces associated with residential care activities, closely followed by those involved in healthcare. Although the industries that involve working directly with, and in close proximity to, other people were at the top of the list, 268 of the notifications came from other industries.
These were predominantly concerned with the manufacture of foods and warehousing, which is unsurprising given the continuance of their operation and necessity for employees to remain at work during the “lock-down” period. While 268 is a relatively small proportion of all reports made, it reminds us that infections in non-healthcare settings were occurring and that all workplaces are potentially susceptible. The statement from the Transport Commissioner for London on the TFL website with a message of condolence to the families of 44 transport workers in London who have died as a result of COVID-19 is a stark reminder of this.
All employers are under an obligation to protect their workers from the risk of contracting COVID-19 whilst at work by virtue of sections 2(1) and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The government has made it clear that a failure to meet this legal obligation will be punishable, so with the increase in HSE spot checks for COVID secure compliance, businesses need to be on top of their game in this regard.
Conducting a COVID-19 Risk Assessment
A risk assessment is the foundation for the management of any workplace health and safety risk. The Finch vodcast “Making Risk Assessments Work for Your Business” provides guidance on some of the key factors which should be considered during this process.
The aim of a risk assessment is to assess the degree to which a hazard is adequately controlled and, if control can be improved, what those improvements are. The measures which should be implemented to prevent coronavirus transmission will vary with the nature of the business, the number of people attending work, whether close contact with other workers or with the public is required and so on. As well as consulting the most recent government guidance for businesses, further guidance on the types of measures which could be implemented to assist with controlling COVID-19 risks can be found here.
Ongoing COVID-19 risk assessment
Regardless of the nature of your business, you must undertake COVID-19 risk assessments and, like all risk assessments, these must be periodically reviewed. What should be remembered in the case of your COVID risk assessments is that the government advice and guidance documents do not provide you with definitive answers on controlling the risk of transmission. The government guidance is subject to change in line with the evolving knowledge and conditions presented by the pandemic. As such, your COVID risk assessments are living documents that require frequent review, more frequently than we generally review risk assessments. To survive the pandemic, you will need to keep abreast of the continuous changes in the guidance and adapt systems of work and the ways in which you provide services.
What to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?
If an employee tests positive for COVID-19 and the transmission can be linked to the workplace, you will need to make a RIDDOR report. You should immediately revisit your risk assessment and identify any additional measures required so you can keep operating and avoid enforcement action. If you should have more than one infection in your workplace, it is considered to be an “outbreak” and you must contact your local Public Health England (PHE) Health Protection Team (HPT). There is guidance on outbreak management here. You should take advice from the HPT.
Are companies managing COVID-19 Risk successfully?
According to IOSH magazine “between 9 March and 29 June, the HSE received 23,569 COVID-related contacts...”The article states the HSE carried out close to 4,000 spot checks, only in 41 cases was further investigation and follow up required; in the rest of cases the businesses involved were deemed to be have achieved COVID compliance. So, it would appear the measures put in place by the majority of employers were deemed to be effective. It is likely the numbers will have changed since the publication of the IOSH article; it would be useful if the HSE published updated figures in the near future so we can see how the fight against COVID in the workplace is progressing.
However, in some areas that the number of infections is rising. This rise appears to be associated with social rather than workplace interactions. This has led to the implementation of the Government’s localised strategy to control the spread of the virus, with a local lockdown introduced in Leicester and additional restrictions introduced in local authority areas on the Public Health England watch list, including areas in Lancashire, West Yorkshire, and Greater Manchester. Such measures do have an effect on businesses that may have to close, exclude people from the workplace or make changes to operations.
The unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the changing government guidance and local restrictions are playing havoc with businesses’ plans and are leading to postponed re-openings. The Prime Minister in his lunchtime address on Friday 31 July 2020 announced that the reopening of the remaining close-contact businesses on 01 August was to be postponed for at least a fortnight and the extension of the compulsory face coverings in places like museums and places of worship from 08 August.
Five practical steps for COVID-19 risk management
Businesses should continue to adhere to the government guidance on the return of employees to the workplace, i.e. those who can work at home, should. However, if you do have employees returning to the workplace especially those who have been shielding, revisit your COVID secure measures and your risk assessments.
The HSE in their recent press releases have directed readers to the Government’s guidance on five practical steps businesses can take to ensure they are COVID secure:
- Step 1. carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment.
- Step 2. develop increased cleaning, hand washing and hygiene procedures.
- Step 3. take all reasonable steps to help people work from home.
- Step 4. maintain 2 m social distancing where possible.
- Step 5. where people cannot be 2 m apart, manage transmission risk.
How can Finch Consulting help?
Step one is the step where specialist help may be required to ensure that you get this right. Finch has been helping a number of clients with the audit and review of their COVID measures and can assist you in this regard.