From 19 July 2021, most coronavirus restrictions (including social distancing and work from home requirements) have been lifted in England. However, you still have health and safety obligations towards staff, and other visitors to your workplace, to minimise the risks of COVID-19. These include carrying out a COVID-19 risk assessment, ensuring you do not have unwell staff or those who are meant to be self-isolating at the workplace, cleaning and ventilating your workplace, and communicating clearly to staff and visitors about your COVID-19 policies.
The Government has moved away from mandating certain COVID-secure practices at work (eg social distancing), and is requiring employers and businesses to assess their own risks and take relevant measures to protect their staff and visitors to the workplace.
This guide will help you get to grips with the new Government guidance around health and safety and provides relevant templates you can use to carry out your risk assessments. Next week, we’ll be covering HR issues around staff coming back to work and introducing hybrid working, so keep an eye out!
Note that the health and safety guidance for businesses reopening in Wales is slightly different; you can find more information here.
What are the key COVID-19 rules from 19 July 2021?
The Government has advised businesses in England to take six main steps to protect themselves, their staff and their customers from COVID-19:
- complete a health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk from COVID-19 (you can use our free COVID-19 risk assessment but don’t forget you still need to carry out your usual general risk assessments and a risk assessment for remote workers if you have staff working from home);
- clean regularly and ask your staff and visitors to your premises to use hand sanitiser and wash their hands frequently;
- ensure that staff do not come to work while they are meant to be self-isolating, and turn away customers, visitors or staff with COVID-19 symptoms;
- enable customers and other visitors to check in at your workplace by displaying the NHS QR Code and having a manual system for people to record their contact details (although you do not have to require people to check in or turn them away if they refuse);
- ensure your workplace is adequately ventilated; and
- communicate to and train your workers on how you are implementing and updating safety measures.
The Government has also advised that you should put measures in place to protect clinically extremely vulnerable staff. For example, relevant measures could include requesting employees to undergo COVID-19 testing, putting clinically extremely vulnerable staff on furlough (if they’re eligible) or allowing them to continue to work from home, making sure workplaces are well ventilated, and/or providing employee assistance programmes to help with workers’ mental health. You can find more Government guidance on protecting vulnerable staff from 19 July 2021 here.
How do I conduct a risk assessment taking into account the risks of COVID-19?
1. Identify and minimise risks
A COVID-19 risk assessment identifies the risks posed by coronavirus, considers who may be harmed by these risks (including staff, customers, and other visitors to your workplace), and takes all reasonable steps to minimise or eliminate the risks. You should make sure your risk assessment sets out who will be responsible for completing or monitoring each risk mitigation action.
Some examples of increased risks of COVID-19 transmission include staff moving around and interacting in busy workspaces, lack of cleaning and hygiene, lack of ventilation, staff coming to work when sick, and a lack of understanding of the rules by visitors or staff. Our COVID-19 risk assessment sets out extensive examples of ways to minimise these types of risks (for example, using fixed pairings/teams, having a regular cleaning schedule and providing hand washing facilities, opening doors and windows and ensuring mechanical ventilation uses fresh air, and providing clear signage and training on your COVID policies). You must not allow staff to come in when they have coronavirus symptoms or are meant to be self-isolating; see further guidance in our Q&A.
If you use our COVID-19 risk assessment template, review it carefully and add or remove actions as appropriate to your workplace (this is not simply a ‘box-ticking’ exercise).
2. Have a plan in case of a COVID-19 outbreak
Your risk assessment should include a plan in case of a COVID-19 outbreak at your workplace. The Government recommends that you nominate a single point of contact to notify Public Health England of the positive case/s, make sure all employment records including contact details are up-to-date, and, if there is a positive case at your workplace, take action to identify those who should self-isolate rather than waiting for Test and Trace.
3. Consult with your workers
When completing your risk assessment, consult with unions and workers, as they are often in the best place to understand risks in the workplace and how these can be mitigated or removed. You must consult with the health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union or, if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by workers.
4. Share your results with staff
You should share the results of your risk assessment with your employees. If you have more than 50 employees the Government recommends you publish your risk assessment on your website.
5. Keep records
If you employ five or more people, you are legally required to keep a written record of your risk assessment. If you have fewer than five employees, you do not have to write anything down (although you must still conduct the risk assessment). However, even if you employ fewer people, it is good practice to record your risk assessments so you can refer back to them later if a problem arises.
6. Monitor how your risk mitigation measures are working in practice
You should monitor your workplace to make sure the systems put in place to reduce COVID-19 risks are being followed in practice or, if not, what additional controls or management intervention are required. For example, you may need to review your controls if new staff join, different equipment is used, or your workers spot any problems.
7. Don’t forget your other health and safety obligations
It’s important to remember your general health and safety obligations to conduct risk assessments (eg for your office, shop or other business open to customers, and/or or for remote workers) and make sure your actions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 don’t create other health and safety hazards or security risks. You’ll also need to consider particularly vulnerable groups when conducting your risk assessment (eg making sure lifts are still accessible for disabled people and being careful that cleaning doesn’t create slip hazards which could be very dangerous for all visitors and pregnant women especially).
Can I make self-isolating staff come to the workplace if they feel fine?
No. You must not knowingly require or encourage someone who is being required to self-isolate to come to work. Your staff are legally required to notify you if they have been advised to self-isolate, and employers who force or allow staff to come into the workplace when they should be self-isolating could face fines of up to £10,000.
Make sure you are aware of the self-isolation rules by keeping up-to-date with NHS and Government websites.
You should support staff who are self-isolating by communicating with them and ensuring they receive sick pay if they’re eligible for it. See Payment during sickness absence for detailed guidance on paying sick pay for absences due to coronavirus.
In the case of an emergency at work due to a staff member’s COVID-19 symptoms, you should follow first aid guidance; see our Q&A for more.
Do I have to collect contact details of customers who visit my workplace?
Although no longer legally required from 19 July 2021, businesses in certain sectors in England are encouraged to collect personal information from staff, customers and other visitors to their premises to support the NHS Test and Trace scheme. See Collecting data for NHS Test and Trace to find out more.
Displaying the NHS QR code poster to enable people to check into your venue will support NHS Test and Trace to contact those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. However, you are not required to ask customers to check in (or turn them away if they refuse).
If you do choose to display a QR code, ensure you also have a system to record contact details for people who want to check in but do not have the app.
How do I check whether my workplace is adequately ventilated?
You are legally required to make sure there is enough fresh air in enclosed areas of your workplace, and you should do this as part of your COVID-19 risk assessment. You can maximise the fresh air in your workplace using natural ventilation (windows, door and air vents) or mechanical ventilation (fans and ducts which bring in fresh air from outside).
HSE advises ways of identifying poorly ventilated areas, which include:
- identifying where there is no natural or mechanical ventilation where people work;
- checking whether ventilation systems provide fresh air from outside;
- looking for areas that feel stuffy or smell bad; and
- using CO2 monitors (although these are less effective in areas used by only a few people; you can find HSE guidance here).
When assessing risks, think about how much time people spend in the area, how large the area is, and whether any features of the workplace affect air flow (for example, large pieces of equipment). If ventilation cannot be improved, consider restricting the number of people using the space and how long they spend in the space.
You can find more guidance on improving ventilation at Health and safety when returning to work during coronavirus.
How should I communicate with staff around returning to work and safety measures?
To support your staff members’ mental health and wellbeing, it’s a good idea to talk with them about any specific concerns they have about returning to work and communicate what you’re doing to address the risks, providing clear information about your health and safety procedures.
You can use our free COVID-19 policy template to provide to your workers. It explains the steps you are taking to minimise the risks of COVID-19 at your workplace, and how workers can assist. See Health and safety when returning to work during coronavirus for further guidance about supporting staff wellbeing when returning to work.
To find out whether any of your staff members are clinically extremely vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus, you may wish to send them COVID-19 individual risk assessment. By collecting this information, you are better able to determine what adjustments may be needed to the workforce and individual roles. However, information about your staff members’ health is sensitive personal data and there are strict rules around when and how you can process it. For instance, you must only collect this information with the explicit and freely given consent of your staff member or where it is necessary (and proportionate) for you to comply with your legal obligations as an employer or to exercise your rights as an employer. See Health and safety when returning to work during coronavirus for further guidance.
Keeping your business safe
As set out in this guide, you still have health and safety obligations under COVID-19 rules from 19 July 2021. As well as keeping your staff, customers and visitors safe, following the rules will help you maintain your business’s reputation and reduce the risk of penalties from HSE (Health and Safety Executive).
HSE is carrying out random spot checks on businesses to check that they are working safely as some COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. They may call or visit your business and speak directly to you or your staff, and you must cooperate with them under health and safety law. If your business is not following the correct risk mitigation procedures, actions HSE may take include providing guidance and advice on how to better manage risk, closing down certain unsafe work practices until they are made safe, issuing enforcement notices and/or prosecuting businesses where they fail to comply.
As well as the other templates provided in this guide, you can find a quick checklist of things to consider when staff are returning to the workplace at our Checklist – Returning to the workplace.
Marion joined Sparqa Legal as a Senior Legal Editor in 2018. She previously worked as a corporate/commercial lawyer for five years at one of New Zealand’s leading law firms, Kensington Swan (now Dentons Kensington Swan), and as an in-house legal consultant for a UK tech company. Marion regularly writes for Sparqa’s blog, contributing across its commercial, IP and health and safety law content.