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The recent COVID-19 pandemic has altered our lives in many different ways, particularly when it comes to the way that we work. All businesses will have to adapt to new methods of working to ensure that their workplaces are COVID-secure. This may seem daunting for some employers, particularly those who operate smaller businesses. Some workers will also be returning to work after a long period, and they may have concerns about catching the virus. Employers can allay their fears by ensuring that the premises are COVID-secure.
COVID-secure is a term used by the UK Government, Local Authorities and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It means taking certain measures to ensure that workers, and others visiting the premises, are protected as much as possible from the risks of coronavirus (COVID-19). Therefore, businesses will need to effectively manage and control these risks to comply with their legal obligations.
COSHH is a vital part of ensuring a workplace is COVID-secure. It will not only apply to the virus that causes COVID-19, but it will also apply to the increased use of other hazardous substances, such as cleaning products, that may be used to control the spread of the virus.
In this article, you will look at the different measures needed to ensure that a workplace is COVID-secure and how COVID-19 affects COSHH.
What is COSHH?
COSHH stands for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health, which relates to a set of regulations that were first introduced in 1988 and were last revised in 2002. The regulations have also been amended on numerous occasions, and are now known as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 (as amended). The regulations place duties on employers to reduce the risks to health by preventing or adequately controlling exposure to hazardous substances.
There are many substances in the workplace that are hazardous, which can cause harm to people’s health. Hazardous substances can include:
- Substances that are directly used for specific work activities, such as cleaning chemicals.
- Substances produced by certain work activities, such as welding fumes.
- Naturally occurring substances, such as dust.
- Biological agents, such as viruses and bacteria.
Hazardous substances can take many different forms, such as solid, liquid, dust, fume, vapour and mist. The form of a substance will determine how it enters a person’s body, which is known as the route of entry. It can include inhalation, ingestion, skin and eye contact, and pressure injection. For example, fumes can be inhaled through the nose and mouth into the lungs, and liquid chemicals can splash and come into contact with a person’s skin and eyes.
Exposure to hazardous substances can result in short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) ill health. According to the HSE, thousands of workers suffer from ill health, such as from asthma, cancer and dermatitis, as a result of exposure to hazardous substances every year. These diseases are a cost to industries, individuals and society. In fact, the HSE estimate that the costs run into millions of pounds every year.
For a more detailed look at what COSHH is, you can read our full guide, which can be found here.
Is COVID-19 a hazardous substance?
Substances that are hazardous to people’s health are covered under COSHH, which also includes biological agents. These agents include microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, which can cause infection and disease in humans.
COVID-19 is a contagious disease that is caused by a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). As it is a virus, it is classed as a biological agent and a hazardous substance under the COSHH regulations. Employers must reduce the risks to health by preventing or adequately controlling exposure to the virus.
Workplaces must be COVID-secure to be compliant with the law. Firstly, there is a general requirement for a suitable and sufficient COVID-19 risk assessment under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. This requirement is extended by the COSHH regulations (regulation 6), which requires the assessment to include biological agents. The HSE has an example of a COVID-19 risk assessment that employers can use, which can be found here. Employers must remember that their COVID-19 risk assessment must be made specific to their workplace, operations and workforce.
The exact control measures required to ensure that the workplace is COVID-secure will be dependent on the findings of the business’s risk assessment. However, employers must consider the following when managing and controlling the risks from coronavirus:
- Social distancing by keeping two metres apart where possible.
- Frequent cleaning of the workplace.
- Regular handwashing and sanitising.
- Protection of vulnerable workers.
- Protection of home workers.
- Consultation with workers and their representatives.
- Provision of face masks or coverings where the risk assessment has identified a need. Employers will need to provide any PPE free of charge. The assessment will also need to account for those who would be exempt, i.e. for medical reasons.
How does COVID-19 affect COSHH?
To ensure that a workplace is COVID-secure, it is highly advisable to increase cleaning to reduce the transmission of coronavirus. In fact, cleaning is one of the most effective methods of preventing the virus from spreading.
The UK Government has produced sector-specific guidance, which includes a section on cleaning, which can be found here. Also, the HSE recommend both deep and periodic cleaning to ensure that the cleaning regime is sufficient. Further advice from the HSE on cleaning and hygiene within the workplace can be found here.
According to Public Health England, the virus is transmitted between people in two main ways: via respiratory droplets/aerosols and through contact routes. Research suggests that the coronavirus can also survive for up to 72 hours on surfaces, depending on the type. Therefore, surfaces and items that are frequently touched by people in the workplace, such as door handles, light switches, bannisters, buttons and toilets, will require more frequent cleaning than usual. The frequency, and type of cleaning regime, will be based on the risk assessment findings.
Having robust cleaning procedures, if followed correctly, can help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Preventing it from spreading can reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections in the workplace. If employers don’t put measures in place to prevent the spread, this can result in outbreaks. Outbreaks can adversely affect a business, as increased sickness absences can reduce productivity and morale amongst workers. If the outbreak is significant, it can also end up being reported in the media, which may affect a business’s reputation.
An increase in cleaning will undoubtedly result in the increased use of cleaning products; some of which will be classed as hazardous under COSHH. Therefore, this can increase the risk of exposure to hazardous substances and can result in acute or chronic ill-health effects if there are insufficient control measures in place.
The hazardous nature of cleaning products is sometimes overlooked. There is often a misperception that cleaning products are safe, as some of them are used at home and in lower-risk environments, such as offices. The type of cleaning products that would be used to control coronavirus can include sanitisers, detergents and disinfectants, which are classified as hazardous. Bleach is a type of disinfectant, which can be corrosive or an irritant to the skin and eyes. Bleach can also give off toxic chlorine gas if it is accidentally mixed with other chemicals. If cleaning products are applied via an aerosol or spray, this can increase the risk of exposure as the hazardous substance can be inhaled.
Where there are any hazardous cleaning products, employers must consider the risks, particularly if any new chemicals are introduced, or quantities are increased as part of the COVID-secure cleaning regime. There should be up-to-date COSHH assessments in place for all hazardous substances, which informs workers and others of the hazards and control measures required to reduce the risk of exposure. If existing COSHH assessments are not up to date, they will need to be reviewed. Any new substances will also need a COSHH assessment, which may also include alcohol-based hand sanitisers. For a more detailed look on how to undertake a COSHH assessment, you can read our full guide here.
There is still much to learn about COVID-19 and its longer-term effects. However, it is known that the virus predominately causes respiratory illness. The most common route of entry for hazardous substances is via inhalation, which can also affect the respiratory system. Therefore, those who have any existing respiratory issues, including from a previous COVID-19 infection, can be more susceptible to exposure to hazardous substances. Employers must take this into account when assessing and controlling the risks.
What are the employer and employee responsibilities?
Where there is a risk of exposure to hazardous substances, employers will have duties under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 (as amended). The general duties under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 will also apply. Employees also have duties under these laws.
Firstly, employers must look at preventing employees from being exposed to hazardous substances in the workplace. Where it is not reasonably practicable to prevent exposure, employers must then ensure that it is adequately controlled.
Under the COSHH regulations, employers must:
- Risk assess the substances that are hazardous to health, e.g. a COSHH assessment.
- Look at the precautions required and put control measures in place.
- Make sure that control measures are maintained, tested and examined.
- Monitor exposure where hazardous substances are in use.
- Provide health surveillance for those who are at risk of exposure.
- Provide training, information, instruction and supervision to those who will come into contact with hazardous substances.
- Have arrangements to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies.
Under general health and safety legislation, employees must:
- Take reasonable care of themselves and others who may be affected by their acts and/or omissions.
- Cooperate with their employer so that they can comply with health and safety legislation.
- Use any hazardous substance in accordance with any training and instruction received.
- Notify their employer, or an employee with specific health and safety responsibilities, of any situation that poses a serious and immediate danger.
- Notify their employer of any failings in their health and safety arrangements.
Under the COSHH regulations, employees must use any control measures fully and properly where provided. Where applicable, they also must report the release of a biological agent which could cause severe disease. Finally, if a requirement for health surveillance has been identified, the employee must be available for this during working hours at the employer’s request.
What COSHH measures should be put in place?
There are two main things to consider when looking at COVID-19 in relation to COSHH. The first is to look at coronavirus itself as a hazardous substance (biological agent) in the workplace. The second is to consider any additional hazardous substances, such as cleaning and hygiene products, that will be used to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Measures for the coronavirus itself
Employers must ensure that their workplace is COVID-secure. The UK Government recognises five steps to safer working, which are:
- Carrying out a COVID-19 risk assessment and sharing the results with workers.
- Having cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with guidance.
- Helping people work from home wherever possible.
- Taking reasonable steps to maintain social distancing of two metres in the workplace.
- Managing the risk of transmission where people cannot be two metres apart.
The Government has a notice that employers can display to confirm that they have complied with the five steps, which can be found here.
The HSE coronavirus website provides guidance on how to achieve the above five steps. It also provides additional information on protecting home workers and those who are classed as vulnerable. These are people who are at a higher risk of being infected or suffering a worse outcome from a COVID-19 infection. The HSE’s coronavirus webpage can be found here.
You can find out more about COVID-19 and the measures employers can put in place by taking our awareness course, which can be found here.
Measures for other hazardous substances
Where hazardous substances, such as cleaning products, are used to control the spread of coronavirus, employers must ensure that they comply with the COSHH regulations. All hazardous substances must have a COSHH assessment, which will detail the hazards associated with their use and the precautions that must be followed.
Precautions should include:
- Safe methods of working.
- Ventilation requirements.
- Safe handling and storage.
- The personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE) required.
- What to do if there is an emergency, such as a spillage or fire.
- First-aid measures if a person comes into contact with a substance.
- Giving workers appropriate training, information and instruction on COSHH.
- Any monitoring and health surveillance requirements.
- Maintaining control measures to ensure that they are working effectively.
Our COSHH awareness training course provides further information on how to control the risks of hazardous substances. Further information can be found here.
It is clear that employers are going to have to adapt to a new way of working in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As coronavirus is classed as a hazardous substance, employers will need to comply with the COSHH regulations and other general health and safety legislation to ensure that their workplace is COVID-secure.
The HSE are inspecting workplaces to ensure that employers are protecting their staff and others from the risks of COVID-19. Therefore, it is vital that employers manage the risks in accordance with the law and government guidance. The first step is to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment and, from this, put any necessary control measures in place to protect against the coronavirus itself and any other hazardous substances. Employers should already be managing other health and safety risks, such as COSHH, within the premises.
We know that COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease, particularly for those who are classed as vulnerable. Many workers are understandably going to feel anxious about catching the virus and potentially spreading it to their loved ones. Therefore, employers not only have a legal duty to protect their staff and others, they also have a moral obligation. We should all go home at the end of the working day safe and healthy. By making the workplace COVID-secure, this will hopefully put workers’ minds at ease. It will also show them that they have an employer who cares about their health, safety and welfare.