Social Distancing in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers

image of coronavirus with social distancing at work text for employers

On Sunday 10 May 2020, the Prime Minister announced a “conditional plan” for phasing out the current lockdown restrictions over the coming weeks and months, replacing the “stay at home” message with one of “stay alert”. The plan included a recommendation for people to start returning to work this week if they are unable to work from home. Boris Johnson highlighted the need for people in the construction and manufacturing industries, in particular, to return to work.

However, social distancing must be observed in the workplace. What does this mean for employers? What does a “COVID-safe” workplace look like in practical terms? How can businesses mitigate the risk of infection where it is not possible to keep employees the requisite two metres apart?  This guide will summarise the current advice to employers regarding safe working practices.

Adhere to the Social Distancing Rules Where Possible

The government continues to advise that employees should be encouraged to work from home where possible. If this is not practicable, employers should discuss the possibility of returning to work with their employees and ensure that all reasonable steps to allay individual concerns and mitigate the risk of infection are implemented.  If it is not possible to adhere to the two-metre rule during the course of particular work activities, employers must consider whether these activities are essential to their business at the current time. If so, mitigating steps must be put in place to protect workers.

Preparing for Employees Returning to Work

The government has advised that anyone unable to work from home, should begin to plan for a return to the workplace from Wednesday 13 May 2020. Employers should discuss and plan this return with their employees as soon as possible.

It is the employer’s responsibility to stay up to date with government advice and ensure that appropriate preparations have been made to keep workers safe.

When planning for employees to return to work, employers must:

  • Discuss the planned return with employees and employee representatives such as trade unions (where applicable)
  • Conduct a risk assessment of the workplace with regard to coronavirus infection. Also known as a COVID-19 risk assessment
  • Implement strategies to keep staff and visitors to the workplace safe

Industry-Specific Guidance

On 11 May 2020, the government issued new guidance to help employers, employees and the self-employed to maintain safe working practices during the coronavirus pandemic.

Every business owner will face a unique set of challenges when implementing government guidance and putting processes in place to keep workers safe. The government has provided eight guides to help employers keep workers safe across a variety of workplace settings and activities.  You can access these guides via the links below:

  • Construction and Outdoor WorkThis includes construction, energy and utilities, farming and agriculture, forestry, waste management, railway service and highway services.
  • Factories, plants and warehouses – This includes manufacturing and chemical plants, food and other large processing plants, warehouses, distribution centres and port operations.
  • Labs and research facilitiesThis includes engineering centres, clean rooms, prototyping centres, wet labs, wind tunnels, computer labs, simulators, material development labs and specialist testing rooms.
  • Offices and contact centresThis includes offices, contact centres and operations rooms.
  • Other peoples’ homesThis includes anyone working, visiting or delivering to home environments. This could include home workers such as those offering repair services, meter readers, plumbers, cleaners, cooks and surveyors as well as home services, such as delivery drivers.
  • Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery – This includes pubs and bars operating as takeaways, cafes, food to go, food delivery, contract catering, takeaways and mobile catering.
  • Shops and branches – This includes all types of retail business that are currently closed as well as shops that are open, such as those selling food. Branches include bank branches and other open money businesses.
  • Vehicles – This includes anyone working on or from a vehicle – couriers, mobile workers, lorry drivers, on-site transit, work vehicles and field forces.

Best Practice for All Businesses

There are also some general guidelines for best practice in all business settings.

Every employer must carry out a risk assessment and implement a strategy for managing COVID-19. Employers have a duty to consult their workforce on health and safety; employees are the best placed to identify any potential risks they might face and to suggest ideas for prevention. The government encourages employers and their staff to work together to identify and manage risk, reducing it to the lowest practicable level by taking preventive measures in order of priority.

Employers must also collaborate with other employers and contractors that share their workplace to maintain health and safety standards. Every business should follow these steps in order:

  1. Increase the frequency of hand-washing and surface cleaning
  2. Make “every reasonable effort” to enable employees to work from home where possible. If people must come into the workplace, social distancing guidelines should be adhered to where possible
  3. If it is not possible to maintain a two-metre distance between people when conducting a particular activity, this work should only be undertaken if it is essential for the business to continue operating and if so, mitigating actions must be implemented to reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted between staff
  4. Where social distancing cannot be maintained, implement further mitigating actions:
    • Keeping the time spent on the activity to a minimum
    • Use screens and barriers to separate workers
    • Advise employees to work back-to-back or side-to-side (rather than face-to-face) where possible
    • Use fixed teams or partnering to reduce the number of people each person has contact with
  5. If a task makes it impossible for people to take the above mitigating actions, assess whether the work can be safely undertaken. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe environment

Social Distancing in the Workplace

Wherever possible, social distancing must be maintained in the workplace. That means staying at least two-metres away from other people while travelling to and from work, between sites or when in the workplace. The government has provided detailed guidance on how to maintain social distancing, including step-by-step guides on actions employers can take to make the following situations as safe as possible:

  • Coming to work and leaving work
  • Moving around buildings and worksites
  • Making the workplace safe for people who work statically
  • Meetings
  • Common areas
  • Managing accidents, security and other incidents

Suggested actions include steps such as staggering break times to avoid staff congregating, using outdoor areas for breaks, providing hand sanitiser in meeting rooms and changing workplace layouts to reduce face-to-face working.

Staying Up-to-Date with Government Guidance

At Howlett Health and Safety Services, we are committed to providing you with up-to-date, accurate information that will help you, as an employer, keep your workforce safe in this continually-evolving situation. We will continue to monitor government guidance and share relevant information with you via our blog.

Got a question? Do you need help conducting a risk assessment as part of your preparation for welcoming your team back to the office? Get in touch.

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