The COVID-19 pandemic has led us all into unprecedented times, and we can all feel overwhelmed by the thought of how we are going to manage if, and when we return to the workplace.
Whilst the current situation is bleak, one positive thing to note is the knock-on effect on the lowering of reportable workplace accidents, illnesses and dangerous occurrences, as reported by the Health and Safety Executive. Additionally, we have all heard reports of how the environment has benefited from us all staying at home and not polluting the air with modes of transport. Upon returning to work, we have an opportunity to keep those statistics to a minimum.
When ‘normal service’ resumes, the workplace will not only face its usual hazards, but a new wave of challenges as a result of the pandemic. Here are five health and safety challenges we might all face at work that can be managed by carrying out suitable and sufficient risk assessments and putting in place controls to reduce the risk, so far as is reasonably practicable.
The government advice of maintaining a two-metre distance from others has been put in place to minimise social interaction outside of our homes wherever practicable. With this in mind, maintaining the two-metre rule at work is the logical way to achieve this, reducing the likelihood of germs spreading through coughs and sneezes. Adjusting lunch breaks to limit the number of people in staff rooms may also be a consideration.
Another control measure, which we are familiar with, is the importance of washing hands thoroughly and often, since droplets are also likely to be found on many surfaces you touch. Provide soap and water or hand sanitizer for your staff, and consider signage to encourage this.
Before workers return to the workplace, it is vital that employers and managers are aware of any vulnerable persons who might be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of underlying conditions. Employers may also wish to consider a staggered return to work, flexible working hours or split shifts, in order to limit contact and reduce the risk to staff. Why not even take a leaf out of the book of retailers and supermarkets and introduce perspex screens to reduce exposure risks and act as an impervious barrier?
It has been recognised that there may be a significant increase in the instances of poor mental health at work, following this traumatic time. Employers have a legal responsibility to 'ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare, at work of all of his employees’. Employees have a legal duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of anyone who could be affected by their acts or omissions.
Employers are required to carry out ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments of reasonably foreseeable risks and to reduce those risks, so far as is reasonably practicable. It is reasonably foreseeable that workers may suffer from the harmful effects of stress. These affects fall under three general categories; physiological, emotional and behavioural. My advice to employers is to initially review their health and safety policy with regards to work-related stress and to organise and train their managers to be able to recognise what stress is, how it can affect people, how it can be avoided or controlled and how to apply the HSE Management Standards guidance. Protect your workforce from the harmful effects of work-related stress.
It is vitally important that the good work orchestrated by the Government is not undone and that we do not overburden the NHS with workplace accidents and incidents. Should another wave of infection occur, the NHS will need all of their resources to fight a second battle that has the potential to be as catastrophic as the first.
Slips, trips and falls are the most common incidents in all workplaces and, in many situations, their occurrences are due to poor housekeeping. According to IOSH, 95% of serious falls result in broken bones which are extremely painful, can result in recurring pain and disability through life and cost an absolute fortune for insurance companies. And what happens when someone breaks a bone? They are taken to hospital for treatment, which is precisely what we wish to avoid.
This can be rectified by having proactive measures in place to carry out ‘clean as you go’ systems to reduce the risk of hazards occurring, regular housekeeping inspections properly recorded, minimising the storage of materials and articles and following safe systems of work. The wearing of correct footwear will also reduce the risk of slips and falls.
It is reasonably foreseeable that instances of absenteeism and presenteeism are going to increase when we try to get back to the workplace. Lockdown has been challenging for everyone, with many people having to cope with numerous crucial roles, such as worker, parent, teacher and carer, whilst watching COVID-19 death toll rise. Experts state that mental health is a big worry for the future and it is important that employers are aware of this and that they put controls in place to manage attendance and mental health in the workplace. On top of this, employees may be frightened to return to work for fear of infection risks, or have problems with childcare and care of vulnerable dependents. All of these considerations must be managed appropriately.
However, we must also consider presenteeism as just as big an issue to the workplace. The fact that many businesses may not be able to recover from the effects of lockdown has increased job insecurity. Many people have already lost their jobs with millions of people at risk of unemployment in the future. This could lead to people attending work even if they are unwell, feeling anxious or depressed, fatigued, or potentially infected with COVID-19.
Presenteeism has resulted in loss of production and an increase of accidents in the workplace due to poorer concentration, attention to safe systems and low morale. There is even a greater risk of the spread of COVID-19, should a worker fail to report symptoms. Appliance of the HSE’s Management Standards Guidance will provide excellent advice for all businesses on these issues.
PPE (or the lack thereof) is a very topical subject with regards to COVID-19 in our hospitals, care homes and hospices. Before the current crisis, there were many people in the community who had never heard of PPE - it just wasn’t something that they needed to worry about. Now, many of these people are at home stitching PPE to support our key workers. PPE is actually the last option in the hierarchy of risk control. The IOSH hierarchy is: eliminate, reduce, prevent contact, safe systems of work and PPE, in that order.
It all falls under the umbrella of risk assessment. The HSE’s five steps to risk assessment are: identify the hazards, estimate the risk, evaluate the risk, record the findings and review the risk assessment. If the risk is high, it is unacceptable and we need to do something to reduce the risk. Risk assessments will undoubtedly have to be reviewed upon return to work, with further controls being put in place to help adjust to what will be ‘the new normal’. In this case, PPE will undoubtedly be a consideration. However uncomfortable or unattractive it may be, mandatory wearing of gloves and masks is vitally important. If deemed a useful means of control for your business, we must all play our part in supervising this very important safety provision and also wearing it. It has the potential to save our lives and others.
© 2021 Nicola Penman. All rights reserved.