With COVID-19 pandemic restrictions easing across the UK, more workplaces are reopening for employees to return to work. However, coronavirus still poses a health risk. Employers, managers and responsible persons within organisations have a duty to ensure they provide a COVID-secure workplace for employees returning to work after COVID-19 restrictions ease.
While the threat from the virus remains, various steps still need to be taken to ensure employees, contractors, members of the public, and others are not put at risk.
Planning for a safe return to work after COVID-19
Employers must take detailed steps to plan a safe return to work now COVID-19 restrictions have eased and the government advises that it is safe to do so for their type of organisation. Many employees will be excited about returning to work, but they may also be concerned about the potential risks to their health and that of their colleagues.
You should consult with your employees as early as possible about returning to the workplace and the potential for agile and hybrid working which has now become and expectation for many.
You should discuss when the workplace will reopen, the findings of the risk assessment, controls and any other arrangements to make it safe. Ask employees for their suggestions on safety measures, too.
You should discuss how employees will travel to and from work. Where possible, public transport should be avoided, and you should encourage employees to use their cars or other means of transport such as cycling or walking.
You may wish to consider a phased return to work, with some employees returning before others. However, depending on the type of organisation, you may wish to keep some employees working from home or on furlough. If so, you must consult with the affected employees.
Employees should be ready to return to the workplace at short notice, but you should also be as flexible as possible as an employer.
Making the workplace COVID-19 safe
The measures you should be considering to make your workplace safe during the pandemic are extensive and vary according to your sector. There is in-depth advice in our COVID-19 return to work guide. The main actions you must take include:
COVID-19 risk assessment
The first step in creating a COVID-secure workplace is carrying out a risk assessment.
- Assess if there are any risks associated with the premises being unoccupied such passenger lifts and water safety in relation to Legionella.
- Identify what work activity or situations may cause transmission of the virus.
- Identify who could be at risk and how likely it is that they could be exposed.
- Take actions to remove the activity or situation. If that’s not possible, you must put in place controls to manage the risk.
- Communicate and conduct a consultation in relation to the findings from the assessments and the occupation plan.
The measures you determine must be communicated to employees, visitors, contractors and anyone else who may be affected.
If you have 50 or more employees, you are expected to publish the findings of your risk assessment on your website. You should display the ‘Staying COVID-secure’ poster to show that you have complied with the government’s guidance on managing the risks of COVID-19.
If you have five or more employees, you are legally required to write your assessment down and it is good practice to have a written record as it helps with communication and review.
Due to the constantly changing nature of the pandemic, a COVID-19 risk assessment needs to be reviewed more frequently than a normal risk assessment. It must be updated if any legislation changes, such as local or national restrictions, impact your work activity.
Returning to work after COVID – measures to consider
People should stay apart whenever possible and take all the mitigating actions possible to manage transmission risk. In offices, face-to-face working without a screen separating employees is discouraged. Introduce side-by-side or back-to-back working instead.
You should consider social distancing or alternative safety measures in common areas such as kitchens and canteens, changing facilities and showers, toilets and lifts.
Other options to consider include:
- Staggering arrival and departure times to avoid large groups congregating.
- Introducing one-way systems.
- Using signage to indicate social distancing and one-way systems.
- Using alternatives to touchscreen check-in systems.
- Providing access to hand sanitiser at entrances and exits.
- Using Perspex screens in reception areas.
- Taking steps to maximise ventilation.
The sharing of communal equipment and facilities such as photocopiers, kettles, fridge and door handles, lockers and canteen trays must be kept to a minimum. Where this is not possible, they should be thoroughly cleaned before and after every use.
Regular cleaning of the workplace as a whole is vital. You should always have sufficient supplies of hand sanitiser, soap and other cleaning products. Posters should be displayed that remind employees of the need for regular hand washing. Paper towels should be used instead of electric hand dryers or communal towels where possible.
The need for face coverings in indoor settings is not required unless a risk assessment shows it necessary or an organisation has adopted that approach. You should regularly check the latest government guidance on face coverings in the workplace for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Customer-facing businesses must also protect employees and the public with measures such as one-way systems, protective screens and restricting the number of people on-site at any one time.
Employees and COVID-19
Clinically vulnerable employees
In your plan for employees returning to work after COVID, you need to consider employees who are classed as clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable. You should use your risk assessment as part of the process for deciding how they can return and follow the government’s latest guidance on social distancing and shielding for vulnerable people.
Employees with COVID-19 symptoms or testing positive
The main symptoms of coronavirus are a new, continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.
Employees with symptoms or those who live in a household where someone else has symptoms should follow testing and self-isolation guidance, which can differ in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
If an employee discovers they have coronavirus while at work, they should tell their employer immediately and go home to self-isolate. If other staff have followed COVID-secure workplace guidelines, they can carry on working as normal.
Employees will need to self-isolate if:
- They develop symptoms.
- Are exposed to a person who tests positive for COVID-19.
- They test positive for coronavirus.
- Are told to do so by an NHS test and trace service.
If employees are worried after a colleague tests positive for coronavirus, you should reassure them that you have safety measures in place. Employees should always be encouraged to share any concerns or questions.
Where to find help on COVID-19 in the workplace
Check with official government COVID guidance across the UK for the most up-to-date guidance:
The Health and Safety Executive has a page that provides the latest information on changes related to workplace safety during the pandemic.
Returning to work after COVID-19 infographic
Looking at bringing employees, contractors and other back to the workplace? Our helpful infographic includes so useful tips and advice about making your workplace safe from coronavirus.