Lawyer warns businesses risk prosecution if staff return to workplace without thorough risk assessments
As employers prepare to welcome staff back to the workplace, law firm Furley Page has outlined essential steps businesses must take to ensure a safe working environment, limiting liability if an outbreak of Covid-19 occurs.
Deborah Geering, a Senior Associate with Furley Page, explains: “As lockdown restrictions are eased, existing health and safety policies will need to be updated to take account of social distancing rules, and a comprehensive risk assessment must be undertaken, in consultation with staff.
“Any employer that can be shown to have been negligent in how it managed risks, resulting in the infection of staff or visitors, could be liable to prosecution, particularly if they have not properly assessed potential risks and put appropriate measures in place.
“When the government’s ‘track and trace’ system is finally implemented, it should become very clear where a new outbreak of Covid-19 has arisen. From both a staff safety perspective and in terms of the businesses’ reputation, you do not want your offices to be the centre of a new outbreak. Putting some simple protective measures in place could make all the difference.”
The three main points for business owners are:
- Draft a ‘Return to Work’ Policy
Any ‘return to work’ policy should consider existing working conditions and consider how these might breach current guidelines if no updates are made to working practices. Considerations should include whether social distancing rules can be properly enforced and, if not, what measures should be taken to ensure staff can work safely and why these were considered necessary.
- Undertake a Risk Assessment
In order to effectively undertake a ‘return to work’ risk assessment, a ‘walk around’ inspection should be undertaken, and any high risk areas should be identified.
Ms Geering continued: “Business have a duty to ensure the safety of all those on site, so the risk assessment needs to consider the welfare of anyone coming onto the businesses premises, not just the employees, including consultants, clients, suppliers (couriers, Post Office staff, refuse collectors, etc), business visitors and so on.”
When undertaking an inspection, employers should consider:
- Can staff effectively maintain social distancing?
- Do additional safety measures need to be implemented in relation to any shared equipment?
- Is it feasible to implement a one way system in the office to ensure employees do not have to pass each other in narrow corridors or stairways?
- Have the facilities been cleaned sufficiently, and should the frequency and scope of cleaning be increased?
- Should communal areas remain open, and should the number of people using such areas be limited?
- Where should cleaning/sanitising products be located and what guidance posters/instructions should be displayed?
- Does the layout of the office need to change to ensure staff are not facing one another and are able to maintain an effective distance?
- Consult with staff
Ms Geering said: “Staff consultation is an essential requirement under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Given the current restrictions, businesses should consider circulating a questionnaire to all staff (including those who may be furloughed, on long term sick leave, maternity/paternity leave etc). All staff answers should be collated, and consideration given to concerns raised, and any business with 50 employees or more must publish its risk assessment on the company’s website.
“The government’s guidance is likely to change, thus it is important that any written policies are regularly reviewed and updated in consultation with staff. Provided businesses assess the risks in their individual offices, record their findings and the measures they put in place to reduce risks, this will likely help to mitigate any liability should an outbreak of Covid-19 occur.”