Health and safety risks in the COVID-secure workplace

Health and safety risks in the COVID-secure workplace
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As the nation gradually returns to work, businesses are required to carry out risk assessments to ensure returning employees are met with a COVID-secure workplace. To achieve this, businesses must balance the risk of infection with existing hazards. 

What do businesses need to do to ensure that measures implemented to reduce transmission, don’t inadvertently create new risks elsewhere?

Government guidance

To reduce the risk of transmission in the workplace, the government states that business should:

  • Promote home working and shift staggering where possible 
  • Implement 2m social distancing with risk mitigation if this is not possible
  • Redesign processes to allow for social distancing
  • Promote side by side or back to back working
  • Reduce the number of people each employee has contact with.

Where this guidance is a good fit for office-based employees, in a warehouse environment the rules will be more difficult to translate into practical measures. Homeworking and side by side or back to back working, for example, are not options in a warehouse environment.

New risks

Any new processes or measures implemented following the COVID risk assessment might create new hazards elsewhere.

For example, how can social distancing be maintained if two people are required to lift boxes?

Shift staggering, by design, reduces the number of people concurrently at work. In some circumstances thinning out the number of staff could increase the risk of injury. 

If there are fewer people in the warehouse an injured person might not be spotted. If you are on your own and assisting an injured colleague, do you go and get help, or stay with the injured person?

As working practices are adjusted, employees may be required to carry out different tasks. With people self-isolating or taking time off, businesses may have to recruit temporary or inexperienced staff. An extra focus on training and supervision will be needed to counter the increased risk of injury associated with new recruits.

New and possibly less efficient working practices, combined with smaller workforces, may result in employees working at maximum capacity for sustained periods. Fatigue and stress will inevitably increase the risk of injury.

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, employers have a duty to look after the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. Employers will need to be aware of the psychological health risk that excessive workloads have on individuals – particularly when compounded by other stresses employees are contending with during the crisis.

The government also advises against music in the workplace, as background noise encourages shouting which can, in turn, increase the risk of aerosol transmission of the virus. However, warehouses are inherently noisy environments where PPE for hearing protection is commonly used.  If the use of hearing protection is abandoned during the crisis, the increased risk of hearing damage must be considered.

To minimise contact with others, many businesses are reducing the frequency of deliveries. A consequence of this might be employees needing to handle larger and heavier loads.

Companies will still also need to have first aiders and fire safety officers available at all times.

Wherever a COVID measure puts staff at risk of new or other injuries, then these risks must too be removed or mitigated.

Risk Assessments

Businesses will need to carry out COVID-19 risk assessments with a view to reducing workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level by:

  • Identifying the tasks and roles that carry a risk of transmission
  • Identifying which employees are at risk
  • Assessing the probability of exposure
  • Removing the risk entirely or reducing and managing the risk

Businesses also have a duty of care for customers and visitors. Many of the risks to employee safety apply equally to members of the public visiting the company’s premises.  The risk assessment must, therefore, take the safety of visitors into account.

Once the COVID risk assessment has been completed, businesses will need to revisit their existing health and safety hazard risk assessments.  If measure implemented following the COVID-19 assessment introduce new risks, or if there are any confusing or conflicting policies, these risks must also be removed or managed.

Conclusion

Many people are anxious about returning to work. In the majority of workplaces, it will be possible to provide a safe framework that mostly negates the risk of transmission.

Risk assessments should be carried out in consultation with unions, health and safety representatives and/or individual employees.  As companies adapt to the new normal, it will be critical to communicate a commitment to maintaining a safe working environment.

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