Is returning to work a high-risk strategy?
The Prime Minister’s five-level "conditional plan" to reopen society is underway in England and today (21.05.2020) Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister unveiled a four-phase "route map" aimed at restarting society while suppressing the virus.
Some of the easing measures announced by Ms Sturgeon were introduced in England last week, with some people in England who cannot work from home returning to their workplaces.
As more people begin to return to work across the country, businesses need to consider their duty of care responsibilities, any failures to provide a safe working environment will have serious consequences.
Duty of care and protecting the health of workers
The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) states 'It is an employer's duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. This means making sure workers and others are protected from anything that may cause harm, effectively controlling any risks to injury or health that could arise in the workplace.'
In a recent Guardian article Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor for North West England said "Sending someone into a high-risk situation against one of the most infectious diseases we've come across in 100 years without proper protect needs an investigation and may meet the threshold for criminal sanction."
The HSE says case of COVID should be reported if "a worker has been diagnosed as having COVID-19, and there is reasonable evidence that is was caused by exposure at work."
Currently, no police force in England and Wales has commenced an investigation into corporate manslaughter or gross negligence manslaughter concerning death from COVID-19
What's considered high risk?
People with jobs that put them in physical contact with many others are at the greatest risk of contracting COVID-19. Workers in the healthcare, residential and home care and essential workers are at increased risk include, for example, those involved in food supply and retail, waste collection, utilities, police and security, and public transport.
Workers with pre-existing conditions, such as, those with weakened immune systems and people who have underlying chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, or asthma, makes them more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and workers who have to commute in busy trains or buses will also be more at risk.
What can employers do?
There is no doubt that returning to work is a high-risk strategy but we have to start navigating the ‘new normal’. To prepare you business and understand the risks employees face, we suggest, considering the following:
- If you haven't started planning start now, a COVID-19 risk assessment is an excellent place to start and IOM can support businesses with this.
- Make sure workers have the right PPE and up to date Face Fit training. Some workers who wouldn't have required PPE are now needing to wear it. Make sure they wear it correctly; otherwise, it's ineffective.
- Consider the risks of restarting equipment and systems. Carry out safety checks because equipment that minimises exposure to wood dust, flour, welding fume, silica dust may be compromised following a period on inactivity.
- Provide employees with guidance to follow so they understand how to minimise transmission.
- Protect your vulnerable workers at higher risk of contracting the infection.