The information in this blog is correct as at 22 July 2020. For the most up-to-date Employment Law and Health & Safety advice to support your organisation through the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our Coronavirus Advice Hub, which is updated daily and contains a variety of free guidance notes, letter templates, checklists, risk assessments and more.
As the government rolls out its recovery strategy, allowing locked-down businesses to reopen and stay-at-home workers to return, employers will need to think carefully about risk.
With the threat of the virus still very much present, any business or organisation that is planning to reopen must put measures in place to ensure those returning to work can do so safely, as well minimise risk to others who may be affected by your activities, such as customers, contractors, volunteers and members of the public.
The most systematic way to approach the task of risk reduction is through a COVID-19 risk assessment, using the government guidance on reopening safely as a starting point. This can be a separate risk assessment specifically covering exposure to COVID-19, or it is equally valid to amend existing risk assessments relating to particular activities to take into account the implications of this new workplace hazard and the adaptations that might be required.
If you choose to conduct a separate COVID-19 risk assessment, you may still need to revisit certain other risk assessments that might have been impacted by the measures you have introduced to control COVID-19.
Here’s what you need to know.
What the law says
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) – the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain – requires all employers to put in place systems of work which make sure, so far as is “reasonably practicable”, that employees work without risk to their safety. Therefore, identifying, assessing and appropriately controlling COVID-19-related risks will be at the heart of the arrangements for businesses opening up and those returning to work.
In addition to a general duty of care under the HSWA, risk assessments are expressly required under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which state that employers must carry out “suitable and sufficient” risk assessments, set up and implement safe systems of work and keep them under review.
A specific COVID-19 risk assessment will help you to manage infection risk and protect people. You must:
- Identify what work activities or situations might cause the virus to be transmitted;
- Think about who could be at risk (particular care needs to be taken regarding the clinically vulnerable, who might require their own individual assessment);
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed; and
- Remove the activity or situation or, if this isn’t possible, introduce sensible and proportionate measures to reduce the risk to a minimum.
Revisiting existing risk assessments
If you have adapted your premises, processes or procedures in light of the coronavirus pandemic, your risks will have changed. While some risks may have reduced, others may have grown, and new equipment, substances or procedures may have introduced new hazards entirely. You will therefore need to review your existing risk assessments.
To fully understand how the risks in your workplace have changed, you must be able to assess what has changed. Start by putting together a definitive list of the operational or procedural changes you have made and ask yourself:
- How have premises been altered?
- What new substances, equipment or machinery are there?
- What new policies, processes or working practices have been introduced?
For example, introducing shift partners or reducing production staff to enable social distancing would mitigate the risk of infection but could introduce other hazards such as staff working alone or a reduction in your first aid cover.
Once you’ve compiled a list of the changes, you will need to assess their effect on the level of your risk. In reviewing your existing risk assessments, consider what further action you could take to protect your staff and others.
There’s no magic method for re-assessing your risk and it is up to individual organisations to decide what works best for them. However, failure to carry out re-assessment could mean you fall short of what’s required, giving rise to a legal claim on the grounds that your business didn’t take care to reasonably react to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In looking at your risk assessments again, questions to consider include:
Don’t forget, risk assessments are living documents and regular review is an essential part of the risk assessment process, so if it’s been a while since you last scrutinised your risk assessments, now is the perfect opportunity to do so. You should also revisit your risk assessments (and, if necessary, update them) whenever there is a significant change to your working practices or personnel, new or updated government guidance, or if there is reason to believe your controls are no longer effective.
While this might sound like a large undertaking, risk assessment isn’t about creating reams of paperwork; it’s about documenting what you are doing already to keep people safe. Indeed, with the HSE now inspecting businesses to check they are COVID-compliant, producing a risk assessment, keeping it updated, and sharing the findings with staff is an important first step to demonstrating your compliance.
Free COVID-19 Risk Assessment Templates
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, our experienced team of Health & Safety specialists have been busy producing practical resources designed to help employers follow government guidance and fulfil their duties under health and safety law.