Importance of Assessing COVID-19 Risks Before Reopening Your Workplace

Need to engage employees in risk assessment process

As the gradual easing of lockdown continues, more and more organisations are looking at
how they can open workplaces back up. Below is the downloadable poster that the UK Government recommends all employers display to show that its guidance has been followed.  Top of the list – ‘we have carried out a COVID-19 risk assessment’. This blog examines the purpose of a risk assessment and suggests how best to conduct one, including a 6-step approach.

The Coronavirus pandemic is, undoubtedly, one of the most challenging situations organisations have ever had to deal with. Alongside the financial and economic considerations, there are also a multitude of employee-related challenges – from keeping employees safe in the workplace to ensuring they are safe, healthy and effective when working remotely.

Following the Government’s announcement in early May of a gradual easing of lockdown measures, organisations have started the process of trying to work out what they need to do to prepare their workplaces for a return of their workforces.  They will likely be aware of the general health (and safety) concerns of their employees and also of their legal responsibilities.  Organisations, naturally, already have a responsibility under law (e.g. Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999) to protect workers and others from any risks around health and safety.  The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, however, has brought a whole host of risks which few of us have ever had to deal with.  With this in mind, the Government has issued guidance for organisations across all sectors to follow to ensure conformity and consistency and guidance which is in line with the latest scientific thinking.  The umbrella term for this requirement is now commonly known as ‘COVID-19 Secure’, but what it basically amounts too is a COVID-19 risk assessment that can be adapted and specifically tailored to your organisation.  Conducting a risk assessment will provide assurance to you as an employer, your employees and customers alike that all reasonable and practical steps have been taken to reduce the risks around COVID-19. The Government has provided extensive guidance through the publication of 8 industry-specific guides, which cover such areas as offices, labs/research facilities and factories/warehouses but, as suggested, at the heart of all of these guides is the requirement to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment.

The Health and Safety Executive clearly states, in relation to conducting a risk assessment:

You must:

Identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus

Think about who could be at risk

• Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed

• Act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk

If you have fewer than five employees, you don’t have to write anything down, but it might help if you do.

The Government Guidance document states it is expected that all organisations demonstrate to their workers and customers that they have properly assessed their risk and taken appropriate mitigation measures.  It recommends that you should share the results of your risk assessment with your workforce and, where possible, consider publishing it on your website.  It goes on to state that Government ‘expects’ organisations that employ over 50 workers to do so.

So now we know that we must conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment and that we should share it with our employees and publish it on our website.  The Trade Union Council (TUC) has gone one step further and has established a website – https://covidsecurecheck.uk/ which it describes as ‘a database to show what employers are doing to meet their safety obligations’. It is a database of all published risk assessments.

So how do you conduct a risk assessment and where do you start?  The Government Guidance documents identify the areas or activities you should consider and also provide a number of recommended controls.  This can form the basis of your risk assessment.  We recommend the following six steps:

1) You need to consider what the hazards or risks are in each area and activity of your business.

2) You then need to consider the impact of those risks materialising in your unique environment. This is your initial risk rating.

3) The next step is to assess the controls (the guidance itself) to understand whether they are in place or whether you have a gap against published best practice.

4) Taking step 3 into account, you need to decide if there are any actions required to implement or improve your controls and assign an owner and a target date. 

5) You need to record a level of risk once these actions have been completed.

6) Review and update your risk assessment as risks and guidance change.

The Government Guidance is an excellent tool to identify controls and there are lots of templates available. It must be noted, however, that no two organisations are the same, so it is not acceptable to simply copy a template risk assessment found on the Internet, insert your name and hope that this is sufficient.  Some controls will be particularly sensitive to your organisations and conversely some may not be applicable at all.  It is also important that you document your methodology so you can consistently review and update your risk assessment and risk register as Government Guidance changes.  

We also strongly recommend that you consult and involve your employees or employees representatives at all stages of the risk assessment process.  This will demonstrate how highly you value their welfare whilst at the same time working collaboratively to make your workplace a safer environment.  They will help to bring new perspectives and ideas to the table.

In short, a risk assessment is only effective if both the employer and employee are engaged. Without feeling safe, employees will be reluctant to return, customers will stay away and your restart will falter.

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