As the early stages of the phased return to work commence in the UK, there are a number of considerations for employers to make in order to keep workplaces protected from the spread of coronavirus. As lockdown measures began to be eased on 11th May, the government published their Covid-19 Secure Safety Guidelines as a framework to help workers get back to work safely.
The guidelines state that as well as ensuring employees only carry out their duties from the workplace when necessary, employers must undertake risk assessments (and publish the results where the workforce contains more than 50 people). If a risk assessment deems that personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn, there should be no charge passed onto workers for obtaining this. The government has stated that additional PPE to any normally worn is only beneficial to certain roles, including clinicians, carers and first responders.
However, the CIPD have outlined further preparations for employers to carry out, to ensure a safe workplace for those returning from lockdown. They advise that, depending on the working environment, additional PPE equipment could be provided, such as gloves, masks and anti-viral hand gel. Some have gone further and urged that shields should be considered as part of standard PPE, not only for frontline staff but in settings such as warehouses, and any other places of work where distancing cannot always be maintained. Amazon recently confirmed that they would be manufacturing protective face shields at scale, for general sale to customers.
In addition to bringing PPE into workplace policy, employers need to think about training and briefing staff on the proper use of any equipment, to ensure adequate protection. This adheres to section two of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which states that while making arrangements for the health, safety and welfare of employees, employers should also provide information, instruction and training around how this is properly carried out.
If the workplace is not deemed to be suitably safe from the threat of Covid-19, then workers do have the right to refuse to attend. The government guidelines state that “no one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment”. Therefore, if employers aren’t fulfilling their responsibility to protect their workforce, workers should technically be protected from disciplinary action, under the Employment Rights Act 1996.
The government guidelines have been criticised by some, including Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), for letting employers decide for themselves if and how they introduce PPE to the workplace, rather than enforcing wear as part of standard safety procedure. The guidance states that handwashing and social distancing should be carried out, with less detail around PPE, which is discussed as more of a consideration. Defence secretary Ben Wallace has doubled down on the need for more assertive instruction around PPE, stating that it will be an essential aid to safety where two-metre distancing isn’t possible (as with supermarket till workers). The guidelines state that more detail is to be released around PPE.
Prioritising frontline medical staff for Covid-19 testing is a clear priority, with initiatives including mobile coronavirus testing units run by the military, which are touring the UK. Those who do test positive are advised that they can return to work after self-isolating for 7 days, providing they feel better 8 days from the start of their symptoms. Although getting medics back to work quickly is undeniably a matter of urgency, with the strain placed on the NHS by Covid-19, the lack of sufficient PPE once they are there is an ever-growing concern.
It was revealed in April that Public Health England had updated advice around PPE requirements for frontline workers, in order to ‘optimise supplies’. The new guidance stated that protective wear, which was previously designated as safe for single-use only, could be reused by medical workers between patients or throughout shifts. This came after evidence began to emerge of the increasingly desperate measures frontline staff were taking to stay protected. The media published anecdotes and photographs of doctors and nurses improvising with their kit, including wear bin bags for coveralls, and snorkels in place of appropriate masks.
The WHO had warned world authorities in March that global production of PPE would need to be increased by 40% to meet the demands of coronavirus. Despite this, it was reported in mid-May that over 100 medics had so far informed Whistleblowers UK of PPE shortages. This followed a damning BBC Panorama report, which exposed the government’s repeated failure to act on opportunities to buy crucial PPE. Existing supplies were found to be suitable only for a flu pandemic, not for Covid-19, which has a higher rate of hospitalisation. The government’s PPE stockpile was shown to be missing vital items such as gowns, visors, swabs and body bags.
As an increasing number of the UK population go back to work, the exercising of caution continues to be urged, with various scientists repeatedly warning that easing lockdown too quickly could lead to second or even third waves of the virus. However, as the government moves through its plan to get the economy moving again, many people will be left with impossible choices between paying the bills and prioritising the health of themselves and their families.
This makes the standardised adoption of PPE more important than ever, particularly for those who will be around other people as part of their work, and those whose duties may require the two-metre distancing to be breached. Those who fall into the essential worker category and can access testing has now been extended, to include a wide number of sectors who are being guided back to the workplace. The full list of those now allowed to go to work can be found here. Employers in those categories need to be educated, if not already, on the importance of protective equipment, and briefed on the PPE at Work Regulations. The government also need to bring in stricter regulations around adopting PPE going forward, to protect the UK workforce from the ongoing threat of Covid-19.