In this article
As we are coming to the end of the third national lockdown, many companies may be preparing to reopen for the first time in a while. There are likely to be many challenges as we strive to achieve the balance between containing the virus and getting back to work. However, at least we are returning to some semblance of normal.
COVID-secure measures will likely be in place for some time to come and everyone is responsible for doing all they can to reduce transmission of the virus. If you are looking to establish appropriate safety measures to protect your team, we will examine the various factors that you need to consider. We will also include some of the ways employers can ensure an office is safe, such as conducting an assessment, analysing the physical layout of the office, and examining behavioural changes.
Who should be at work?
At the moment, the government states that those who can work from home should be working from home. However, this is not always possible and many people have been working as usual throughout the lockdown.
At the moment, there continues to be a need to protect those who are at a higher risk. Individuals who are considered to be clinically vulnerable are strongly advised to work from home. If this is not possible, they should not be working. This guidance changes frequently so check current advice for more information.
What is a COVID-secure office?
If staff can’t work remotely, then places of work must be COVID-secure to reduce transmission of the virus. According to the government, a COVID-secure workplace will prioritise seven priority actions, which include:
- Conducting a risk assessment that should then be shared with staff
- Promoting hand hygiene and frequent cleaning
- Wearing face coverings
- Implementing social distancing
- Improving ventilation
- Ensuring compliance with Test and Trace, such as keeping a record of all staff over any 21-day period
- Not permitting people into the office if they are displaying symptoms of COVID, such as a persistent cough, a high temperature, or a loss of taste and smell.
Why is it important to ensure offices are COVID-secure?
At the time of writing, there have been over 4 million confirmed cases in the UK and over 125,000 deaths in the UK. The NHS has been vaccinating people in their millions and the government has established their ‘back to normality’ plan. Although it feels as though we are coming to the end of the COVID-related drama, it remains that we are not quite out of the woods just yet.
The success of any measure is ultimately dependent on how it is implemented. This means that all companies, businesses and organisations are obligated to do what they can to protect staff, prevent the spread of the virus, and reduce the pressure on the NHS.
Conducting a COVID-19 Risk Assessment
To maintain the safest possible work environment, employers will need to conduct a health and safety assessment. A COVID-19 risk assessment attempts to ensure that people can maintain COVID safety whilst they work by addressing the key areas of improvement.
You will need to:
- Identify what may cause transmission
- Consider the people who are at risk
- Remove the activity or ensure that measures are in place to control the risk.
It is advised that you appoint a single point of contact (SPOC) who is responsible for managing the company or organisation’s response to the pandemic. However, it is also recommended that people participate in the assessment process. You should encourage employees to take part and to highlight potential areas of concern. In this article, we will look at the various points that should be considered when conducting your assessment. However, there are templates for your assessment available online, which break down the various steps you will need to take. After you have completed your COVID-19 assessment, feedback would then be shared with the rest of the team.
It is important to note that an assessment can only be effective when people act on it and employers ensure that they take all the measures required to control the risk and keep staff working. It should also be regularly reviewed and consistently evaluated.
Maintaining a COVID-Secure Office
All businesses have a responsibility to ensure that they are doing all that they can to protect customers and employees from the spread of coronavirus in the workplace. The necessary actions that they should take tend to fall within two main categories: environmental changes and behavioural changes. Environmental measures include the physical things that companies can do to mitigate the risk of transmission in the office; whereas behavioural changes are the things that we all need to do and the actions we can take to help stop the spread.
Social distancing measures are the actions that we take to reduce social interaction. The statutory guidance states that people must stay at least two metres apart. However, if this is not viable then one metre is acceptable with risk mitigation, such as wearing masks, working back-to-back, and having PPE desk shields, amongst others.
In order to enable staff to socially distance, companies must address any potential areas of risk caused by the physical layout of the office. The guidance states that workers must maintain a two-metre distance. However, if this is not possible, then one metre is acceptable if mitigating actions have been undertaken. These include increased handwashing and cleaning, minimising the activity time, using screens or barriers between workstations, and back-to-back working, amongst others.
Signs can be an effective way to regularly remind people of the importance of staying socially distanced. You could also use floor tape or paint to mark out the space on the floor.
Workstations should not be shared, and desks should be spread out where possible. If you do not have the space to ensure social distancing, you can install dividers between adjacent desks. Although these PPE desk shields can be an effective alternative, you should still try to avoid face-to-face working; aim for back-to-back or side-to-side working where possible.
Effective ventilation can help to mitigate the transmission risk of COVID-19. Aerosol transmission is when someone breathes in the small particles in the air after a person with the virus has been in the same space. In July 2020, the World Health Organisation reported that this is an area of concern ‘particularly in specific indoor locations such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces’.
How you improve ventilation will depend on the type of building you are working in but you could try:
- Opening windows frequently
- Opening windows at opposite sides of the room for cross ventilation
- Ensuring vents are open and not blocked
- Installing mechanical ventilation such as fans and ducts
- Implementing air filtration systems
- Keeping doors open where possible.
Moving Around the Office
In order to prevent the spread of the virus, particular attention needs to be paid to how people move around the office.
Take steps to improve this, such as:
- Discouraging non-essential movement wherever possible
- Encouraging staff to take the stairs
- Implementing a maximum occupancy for lifts, with priority access for disabled people
- Staggering break times to reduce pressure on communal areas
- Implementing a one-way system to promote a one-way flow through buildings
- Increasing the number of entry points used in the building
- Keeping inside doors open to reduce the need to touch handles
- Providing a safe outdoor space for people to take their breaks
- Encouraging workers to bring their own food or provide packed meals rather than have a canteen open.
One of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of the virus is by limiting the number of people working at any one time. For example, if you have enough staff you could also consider rotating your team between the office and home. You should allow staff to work from home where possible. Plus, if you have contractors who visit the offices, you should stagger visits to minimise the number of people on the property.
Cleaning and Sanitation
The importance of hygiene has been reiterated throughout by world governments and scientists. Cleaning is everything when it comes to infection prevention and control and it should be frequent and thorough.
Ensuring high standards of cleaning could include:
- Making sure that all work areas and equipment are cleaned between uses
- Ensuring frequent cleaning of areas that are touched regularly
- Maintaining a supply of handwash at sinks
- Putting up signs to remind people to wash their hands and clean their stations
- Placing hand sanitiser on desks
- Setting up hygiene stations throughout the office
- Paying particularly close attention to high touch and common areas.
Equipment and Supplies
In order to prevent contamination, employers will also need to take equipment and supplies into consideration. For example:
- You could limit the use of equipment that is used by a large number of the team, such as printers or photocopiers
- Ensure workers have their own stationery
- Restrict the use of high touch items and equipment
- Provide protective equipment such as masks, gloves and thermometers.
Face Masks and Coverings
There were some questions raised regarding the effectiveness of face masks and coverings at the beginning. However, for the vast majority of us, they have since become a staple accessory. Currently, regulations state that there are some places that you must wear a mask by law; for example, public transport, supermarkets, taxis and other such public services. You must also wear a mask if you are providing a close contact service, such as a hairdresser, beautician or tattoo artist. In an office environment, it is not currently mandatory unless people are moving within the building. However, this does not apply to those who are exempt due to health, age or equality reasons.
Staff Awareness and Training
Public attitude towards the virus has been divided and there have been significant inconsistencies in the information that we have been given. There are some which suggest that this has potentially resulted in pandemic fatigue and that there may be some resistance to implementing the behavioural changes required to achieve a COVID-secure office.
Furthermore, employees may have reservations about coming back to work, and they may be anxious regarding the potential risk. However, ensuring effective management is in place can help to alleviate this. It is also recommended that you encourage staff to participate during all stages of the risk assessment as well as providing relevant training and information.
Employers are also responsible for ensuring that people self-isolate when required; with regard to existing government guidance. This includes individuals who have symptoms such as a new continuous cough or temperature, those who have an individual in their household that has symptoms and has tested positive, and people who have been contacted by the government’s Test and Trace service.
Records and Checks
Keeping on top of COVID safety is essential, and companies are obligated to ensure that they maintain records and regularly check up with staff. This includes regular temperature checks on entry into the building and the use of rapid lateral flow tests for workplace testing.
It is also important to keep a temporary record of staff shift patterns, which can be provided to the Test and Trace service if required.
Establishing Essential Activities
If the rules cannot be maintained whilst workers are doing a certain activity, the business must then establish whether that activity is essential. If it is they should think about how it can be redesigned to reduce the risk.
Where possible, your team should be remotely working from home to reduce the number of people that come into contact with each other. For example, people should only physically attend meetings when it is absolutely necessary. If possible, these should be replaced with a virtual meeting or take place outdoors. If your team are not able to conduct the activity without following the regulations, then an assessment must take place to mitigate the risk.
What if there is an accident or a security incident?
The government states that accidents and security incidents override guidance related to the coronavirus. In the event of such an incident, it may not be possible to maintain social distancing and the incident must be dealt with in a safe and timely manner. However, anyone involved must wash their hands immediately afterwards and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth until they have done so.
Reporting Unsafe Work Practices
It is your employer’s responsibility to ‘reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonable practical level by taking preventative measures’. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe environment and it is advised that teams work together to resolve issues.
If you feel that your company is not complying with the rules and regulations in the workplace, you may need to report it. This may include contacting your employee representative or the trade union or reporting to the HSE.
Failure to complete a risk assessment and a failure to comply with the rules is a breach of health and safety law. Inspectors carry out compliance checks around the country and punishment could result in a criminal offence and fines up to £10,000.
What to do in the Event of a COVID Outbreak at the Office
If there has been an outbreak of COVID in the office, there are certain steps that management needs to take to reduce transmission as much as possible.
- Identifying those who must self-isolate immediately
- Identifying any potential or ‘suspected’ cases by looking at those who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus
- Assessing the risk and identifying what may be perpetuating transmission and removing the activity or situation
- Taking action such as cleaning the office, implementing health and safety measures and introducing testing
- If there is more than one case, you will need to contact the local health protection team to report the outbreak.
COVID-19 continues to present us with significant challenges, and ensuring the safety and welfare of employees is paramount. It is the responsibility of management to ensure that this is being implemented. This article has looked at the numerous factors that need to be considered, based on the current advice at the time of writing. However, it is important to note that this is subject to changes, and employers are also responsible for making sure that they keep up to date with current advice.