Coronavirus in the workplace: how to keep employees safe

Published on June 16, 2020 by Kate Taylor
Keeping employees safe in the workplace during the coronavirus pandemic

With UK lockdown measures easing, some employers are taking steps towards returning to their workplaces. It should go without saying that the number one priority for employers making this shift should be the health and safety of their employees and reducing worker exposure risks, as there could be risks for coronavirus in the workplace.

How you do this will depend on what type of business you run and the premises in which you usually carry out work. Irrespective of whether you work in an office or a different setting, there are some things that all employers can do to ensure that their employees are kept safe from coronavirus workplace exposures. Here are some tips on keeping the workplace clean and safe.

Employers' health and safety obligations to employees

As we mentioned in our previous blog on employers’ responsibilities during COVID-19, employers are legally obliged to carry out risk assessments on the health and safety of their workplace (if an employer has five or more members of staff, these must be documented). Along with the following advice, we recommend that employers regularly update their risk assessments over this period, communicating with their employees where things have been updated or changed in order to reassure them that you are doing everything you can do to ensure their health and safety.

1. Encourage regular hand washing

Employees returning to the workplace should be encouraged to regularly wash their hands. Installing hand washing stations at different locations in your workplace can help achieve this. Placing hand sanitisers by entrance and exit points, at people’s desks or work stations, and around any communal areas such as kitchens and common rooms will encourage people to frequently ensure that their hands are kept clean. Employers can also communicate the importance of regular hand washing by sending out alerts via email, holding a meeting (virtually or socially distanced), putting posters or signs around the workplace, or a combination of all of these.

Employees should feel encouraged to engage in regular hand washing without feeling coerced or afraid that they might be punished if they forget, so it’s important to keep the tone of any initial and subsequent communications positive.

2. Step up the cleaning

As with hand washing, employees can be encouraged to keep the workplace clean by placing cleaning products such as antiviral sprays and wipes at multiple spaces throughout the workplace. Cleaning should also be done at more regular intervals to reduce the threat of the virus clinging to any surfaces. How often employers decide to clean the workplace will however depend on the nature of their business, such as whether there is frequent contact from people outside of the usual workforce, such as members of the public or contractors.

As a rule, employers should ensure that surfaces (especially ones that are frequently touched such as door handles and communal kitchen and bathroom equipment) are cleaned multiple times a day to reduce the risk of transmission.

3. Use behavioural prompts to ensure social distancing

Many public-facing businesses have already begun to put measures into place to ensure that social distancing is maintained, such as through placing markers on the floor directing a one way flow of people.

Behavioural science research shows that desirable behaviour (e.g. hand washing, maintaining social distancing) can be promoted by demonstrating positive behaviours in group networks such as amongst work colleagues. Social norms are likely to be adhered to through reinforcement of certain behaviours that are perceived to be positive or desirable in the group to which somebody belongs. Encouraging employees to engage in desirable behaviour like hand washing and social distancing - such as through giving regular praise and thanks - can help to reinforce these behaviours. The science shows that more employees practising these behaviours will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the group.

4. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Some employers are more likely than others to require PPE (for instance, those working with members of the public or where social distancing cannot be maintained). Unless required by law to use PPE, it is up to employers as to whether they make it mandatory for employees to use PPE, such as face masks and gloves. Some employees might feel safer wearing a face mask whilst in the office, for example, while others might prefer to go without any PPE.

In cases where individual employees want to wear PPE (if this makes them feel less anxious or more comfortable, for example), employers should allow them to. But it is worth noting that employers who do not have a legal requirement to issue PPE are not obliged to provide PPE for employees who decide that they want to use it in the workplace.

5. If in doubt, don’t

If you are in any doubt as to whether it is safe to put employees in a particular situation, it is best to withhold from doing so. If you have an employee who is particularly vulnerable, it is best where possible to keep them on furlough or, if this is not possible (say for example they are one of your critical infrastructure workers), to make arrangements to keep this employee as safe as possible by placing their usual desk or workspace as far away from others as possible.

Interested in learning more about HR and employer responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic? See our topical webinar series, where we chat to various HR and employment law experts on topics ranging from carrying out redundancies remotely to addressing employees’ fears over returning to work.

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Written by Kate Taylor

Kate is a Content Marketing Executive for myhrtoolkit. She is interested in SaaS platforms, automation tools for making HR easier, and strategies for keeping employees engaged.

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