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How to create a coronavirus risk assessment

18 May 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Government guidelines state all firms returning staff to work should produce an assessment to ensure their workplace is ‘Covid secure’. So what must this cover? 

Following the government's latest advice on a staggered return to work, employers wishing to make the workplace safe for returning employees must conduct a risk assessment, the new guidelines stipulate. Prime minister Boris Johnson assured that “employers will not be allowed to get away with forcing people to work in conditions that are not Covid-secure”.

An additional instruction that may cause some organisations concern is the sharing and publishing of these results, both with the workforce and online for the general public (if your business has more than 50 workers). 

But what needs to be included in the risk assessment, and where do you start? 

Speaking during a CIPD webinar, ‘Translating returning to the workplace guidance’, Anne Harriss, president elect at the Society of Occupational Medicine, offered the following practical tips and advice on creating a return to work coronavirus risk assessment. “Think about premises, people, processes, equipment, policies and procedures,” said Harriss. “Hazards are not just biological, they will also be chemical, ergonomic and psychosocial.”

She also advised employers to:

Understand how coronavirus spreads 

Before you carry out a workplace risk assessment, an understanding of how the virus spreads provides a good foundation for areas to focus on, Harriss advised. “There are two modes of spread,” she explained. “It can be spread by droplets, which are predominantly transmitted through coughing and sneezing – but also singing and shouting.

“It is also spread through surfaces. When a person sneezes or coughs, droplets land on surfaces (for example, desks and computer keyboards). A person touches the surface and it spreads onto their hands, putting them at risk when they touch their face or eyes – and others when they touch other surfaces.” 

As such, any risk assessment should include the provision and use of hand sanitiser gels and antibacterial wipes for equipment. 

Ask: is my workplace high risk? 

Employers and HR must remember that it isn’t just the workplace itself that holds risk for employees but also the commute to and from work. Harriss said workplaces located in “busy conurbations” could herald travel issues where “social distancing cannot be assured”, and this could make them high risk. 

“Travel issues will be a concern where social distancing cannot be assured. How can you maintain social distancing on public transport?” said Harriss. 

If your workplace has increased potential for person-to-person contact, such as when manual lifting in pairs or teams, or will pose difficulties in maintaining social distancing of at least one metre, this could carry additional risk. Harriss also flagged other considerations such as “equipment and/or work areas that are difficult to clean”. She asked: “Think about your office. If desk chairs are covered in soft fabric, how can you clean it?”

Five steps for creating a risk assessment 

Identify hazards in the workplace. Harriss said this should include transmission, moving and handling, and chemicals in cleaning products used to deep clean the workplace. “Frequent hand washing could also lead to dermatitis,” she said, adding this is something that should be considered and factored into potential hazards. 

Consider who could be harmed and how they might be harmed. Think about hazards both in and out of the workplace. “Think about groups of people and how that harm might arise – for example, people working together or using public transport,” said Harriss. 

Evaluate the risk. “What is the likelihood of harm happening and what strategies will reduce the harm? That could be wearing face coverings,” Harriss advised. She also pointed out that workplaces should not use face masks for employees as this could deplete NHS supplies. 

Record your findings and reflect.

Review it. “Once you have done the risk assessment it should be treated as a living, breathing strategy and needs constant review,” said Harriss. “What has changed? What policies are needed?” 

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