As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, UK businesses are considering their legal obligations in terms of workplace health and safety. They want to understand what measures they need to take to keep their employees safe, healthy, and comfortable at work.
On the 22nd of February 2021, the UK government launched a four-step plan to ease restrictions and allow people to return to a more normal way of life. That includes returning to the workplace.
With the economy set to reopen, businesses should continue to follow applicable government guidelines on safe work practices and implement steps to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, which include:
- Social distancing
- Adequate ventilation
- Frequent cleaning
- Good hand hygiene.
There have also been a growing number of requests from employees to continue working from home even after the restrictions are lifted. Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities toward remote workers as they do for the ones in the office, but the lack of control over the working environment can raise concerns.
The biggest risk factors with remote work are the safety of the home office setup and the mental health of the employees. Employers are required to conduct a risk assessment in order to determine the risks associated with their remote workers and how they plan to manage these risks.
The mental health risks will also need to be considered and managed for. This involves monitoring employee mental health for increased stress, isolation, and loneliness that can result from long-term remote working.
Returning to work safely
As the government begins to ease restriction and people return to work, it’s critical for employers to complete COVID risk assessments which involve identifying work activities or setting that could increase the risk of viral transmission, considering who might be at greater risk, how likely they are to be exposed to the novel coronavirus and taking measures to control the risk and remove the activity or setting if possible. Some groups of people are more likely to have an adverse outcome if they become infected, and this should be factored into the employer’s risk assessment.
Practical measures employers can take include:
- Social distancing measures
- Staggering shifts
- Adding more handwashing stations
- Reminding employees to wash their hands through visible signs and notices
- Determining how the hand washing and sanitizing stations will be replenished
- Setting up monitoring and supervision to ensure that people are adhering to the safety protocols.
Several public health interventions have been implemented by the UK government, as well as those in Scotland and Wales, to help reduce coronavirus transmission. These include testing, tracking and tracing, vaccination, and large-scale asymptomatic testing in the education sector.
The government has also issued The Employment Rights Act 1996 (Protection from Detriment in Health and Safety Cases) (Amendment) Order 2021, which will come into force on the 31st of May. The order extends health and safety protection for workers. It states that workers will not be subjected to a detriment if they refuse to return to their workplace or they leave their workplace because they reasonably believe that they are in serious or immediate danger.
Given that the novel coronavirus represents a serious and immediate danger, the issue will be whether a worker’s belief that they are in danger in their workplace is reasonable or not.
The government has also made it clear that progress in lowering the rate of transmission through the vaccination program should not be used as an excuse for employers to dial back COVID-19 safety measures.
Statistics show decrease in workplace fatalities
The HSE’s statistics on UK workplace fatalities show a decrease, and their rate has reduced by almost 50% over the past two decades, but some industry sectors are still reporting high numbers of fatalities. These figures help the HSE determine where to focus investigative and enforcement resources.
The main causes for fatal accidents have remained the same: falls from height, being struck by a moving vehicle, and being struck by a moving or falling object.
Accidents should be decreasing as technology advances, particularly when there are now practical alternatives to working at height and improved safety protocols.
In higher-risk sectors, safety measures must be constantly informed and enforced rather than merely being referenced in a policy or procedure. This not only serves to reduce accidents and compensation claims but it also improves morale, trust and productivity. People have a right to a safe working environment, and accidents caused by the employer’s negligence can result in investigations, lawsuits and sanction. Prioritizing health and safety shows employees that the company they work for values their well-being which increases loyalty.
Naturally, employees struggling with health issues are more likely to miss work and be less productive, and they’re also more likely to quit if they believe their job is in some way causing their health to deteriorate.
According to government data, approximately 25% of UK employees have a physical health condition while 12.5% have a mental health condition. About a third of them describe their condition as long-term, and almost half feel that it has an impact on their work.
Although their current working environment wasn’t the cause of their health problems, the employer has a duty to take precautionary measures as not to aggravate pre-existing illnesses or injuries. Their legal responsibility is to enable their employees to carry out their work tasks in the way that is least harmful to their health.
This means that UK employers are required to take reasonable steps to make sure the health of their employees is not compromised during the course of their work.
The primary goal of following health and safety regulations is to safeguard employers and their employees from injury, illness, or other forms of harm.
While it does require some investment of resources, following health and safety requirements and maintaining a safe work environment helps a company save money in the long run because it reduces absenteeism, turnover rate and the likelihood of financial sanctions.
Moreover, employees who feel that their well-being is valued report higher job satisfaction and are more productive than those who feel their well-being is a low priority.