‘COVID-secure’ workplaces: taking all reasonably practicable measures
The phrase ‘COVID-secure’ is one which we have become all too familiar with. It is a term regularly referred to in government announcements, news articles, business discussions and by regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). In this article we consider on a practical basis what ‘COVID-secure’ actually means and what businesses are required to do to satisfy the regulators that their workplaces are ‘COVID-secure’.
Section 2 of The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 states that “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees”. Section 3 is similarly worded in reference to non-employees and members of the public.
This general legal duty extends to the “provision and maintenance of a working environment for his employees that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work” (Section 2(2) (e)).
The requirement for businesses under the legislation therefore, in the context of COVID-19, is that they must take “reasonably practicable” steps to reduce the risk of employees contracting the virus in the workplace. This involves balancing the implementation of reasonably practicable preventative measures in the workplace against the time, trouble and financial expense of doing so. Although the basic duty remains the same, what is reasonably practicable will to a degree vary from business to business, according to the number of employees, the size and nature of the workplace and the activities carried out.
As with any risk, employers cannot provide an absolute guarantee that the workplace is ‘secure’ therefore ensuring that all risks to employees’ health and safety in the work place have been eliminated. For example, it remains the case that falls from height occur, despite the implementation of all reasonably practicable control measures. A business is unlikely to be able to totally eliminate the risk of its employee’s contracting COVID-19 in the work place, especially when the virus is in a ‘peak’, meaning that it is prevalent throughout society. There are limits to what businesses are able to do. The phrase ‘COVID-secure’ should perhaps therefore be considered as a mark of compliance rather than a term to be taken literally.
‘COVID-secure’ - reasonably practicable steps
To ensure the workplace is ‘COVID-secure’ and to accord with the regulators’ expectations, businesses are required to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonably practicable measures, in consideration of their day to day activities, to reduce the risk of their employees contracting COVID-19 to the lowest possible level. This includes the following:
- Risk assessment – undertake a risk assessment in relation to the risk and subsequent control measures to reduce the risk of employees contracting COVID-19 at the business premises or whilst otherwise at work. This will need to be regularly reviewed and if necessary updated as the government rules change and depending which tier the premises is located in.
- Social distancing – where possible ensure staff and members of the public maintain a distance of two metres or in the alternative one metre as a minimum. Ensure appropriate signage is in place.
- Cleaning, hygiene and handwashing – have in place a regular cleaning regime and handwashing/hand sanitising stations across the premises. Consideration should be given to appropriate and clear signage to encourage staff to regularly wash their hands.
- Consult with employees – ensure that they are made aware of the significant content of the risk assessment and the control measures introduced. Take account of any feedback as to what works and what doesn’t. Ensure supervision of employees to check that they are following the control measures introduced.
- Working from home – if employees can work at home encourage them to do so. However, check that they have the right equipment to work effectively and regularly check on their wellbeing.
The aforementioned list is not exhaustive but is indicative of the mitigating steps and measures that a business should consider to ensure as far as reasonably practicable its employees’ safety in relation to contracting COVID-19.
It is not possible to eradicate the risk of employees contracting COVID-19, even if the workplace is ‘COVID-secure’ due to the highly infectious nature of the virus and its prevalence in society. However, businesses must be able to demonstrate that they have taken reasonably practicable steps to protect their employees from the virus.
The term ‘COVID-secure’ is potentially subject to misinterpretation in respect of what is expected of businesses under health and safety legislation.
The standard for ensuring a safe working environment has never been described as ‘secure’ in relation to any other health and safety risk. In reality, the expectation is as before, any potential risk to an employee’s health and safety must be identified by way of a risk assessment and thereafter reasonably practicable control measures and mitigating steps should be implemented to reduce the risk of employees contracting COVID-19 in the workplace to the lowest level possible.
Read others items in Health, Safety and Environment Brief - December 2020