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Return to work guidance – how are different sectors being asked to proceed?

12 May 2020 By Francis Churchill

People Management delves into the detail of the government’s industry-specific guidelines, breaking down the stipulations employers need to be aware of

The government has published its long-awaited guidance for employers looking to bring employees back into the workplace.

The eight papers – which each cover a specific sector – said most workers did not need additional protective equipment, instead stressing the importance of carrying out Covid-19 risk assessments, robust cleaning processes and redesigning workplaces to ensure employees stayed two metres apart where possible.

The guidance said all employers should carry out risk assessments for returning to work, in consultation with workers or trade unions. It said, where possible, they should publish these on company websites. Organisations with more than 50 employees were expected to publish their risk assessments, it said.

It also suggested employers stagger shift times and ensure employees worked in fixed teams to reduce the number of people coming into contact with each other.

As well as overarching guidance for employers, the collection of documents outlined more detailed guidelines and practical advice for different sectors.

The guidance comes as part of the government’s plans to bring the country out of lockdown and follows the publication of a separate 50-page document outlining a staged approach that could see schools and some non-essential businesses reopening as early as June if the outbreak is deemed to be under control.

As part of this easing of lockdown, prime minister Boris Johnson’s statement over the weekend said that, while everyone who could work from home should continue to do so, those unable to work from home should be encouraged to go into work.

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, said the sector guidance provided “some really practical guidance” on how to implement social distancing in the workplace. But she cautioned that it was still subject to interpretation and employers would need to consider how the guidelines applied to their own place of work.

“It’s pretty good to be honest. The problem is that it just can’t account for everything and you have to fill the gaps depending on your specific workplace,” Palmer said.

“It’s your thinking and your application of [the guidance] that will give it the robustness. Unfortunately that won’t wholly reassure businesses that they’ve done everything, but the situation is so fast evolving that you’ve got to be reviewing and adapting as a workplace every day.” 

In anticipation of the guidance, the CIPD yesterday (11 May) released a three-point checklist it said employers needed to meet before starting to bring staff back to the workplace. Organisations needed to be satisfied that it was essential for employees to be present in the workplace, that it was safe for them to be there, and that this was mutually agreed between employers and workers, it said.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said: “Business owners must balance their desire for getting their business up and running again with the safeguarding of their people’s health and wellbeing. Government guidance and health and safety will only go so far; businesses must think about what is needed for their own organisation and the specific needs of their people.

“We have a long road ahead to get Britain back to work, but by taking the time to think through workplace protections and by engaging with staff, businesses will be in a much better position to bring people back at the right time and in the right way.”

Palmer added that the guidance left open to interpretation what constituted someone not being able to work from home. “What determines if you can’t work from home? What if you have two young children and they’re running around all the time? There’s the potential there to say you can’t work from home productively,” she said. “To be honest I think the government has purposefully kept it quite broad to give employers the choice of how they interpret that.”

So what, specifically, do the guidelines stipulate for different sectors?

Construction and outdoor work

Employers should stagger arrival times, provide multiple entrances to construction sites and use screen barriers to separate workers. Employees should have fixed teams or partners and be allocated a single ‘zone’ within a site to reduce the number of people they come into contact with. Employers should reduce job rotation – so workers have a single task for the day – to limit the number of tools they touch, and employees should not make non-essential trips to other buildings or worksites. Where social distancing is not possible, workers should work back to back or side by side, as opposed to face to face.

Factories, plants and warehouses

Similarly to the construction sector, employers should stagger arrival times, reduce movement within factories, work in fixed teams and reduce job and tool rotation. They should review the layout of factories to allow people to work further apart from each other and mark out areas to help with this. Break times should be staggered to reduce the number of people in break rooms, and where possible breaks should be taken outside or in separate parts of the worksite.

Labs and research facilities

As well as staggering work times and looking at the layout of workspaces, employers should limit the number of employees in labs to help maintain social distancing and try to reduce the use of ‘high touch’ items – for example, test equipment – and other shared office equipment. In areas where there is a high risk of airborne particles, employers should ensure access to air handling and filtering systems.

Offices and contact centres

Employers should rethink the layout of offices – moving workstations apart and introducing one-way systems – to reduce the number of people coming into contact with one another. Screens should only be used where it is not possible to move workstations apart. Hot desking should be avoided where possible. Where not possible, workstations should be cleaned between use by different occupants. Employees should attend meetings only when absolutely necessary, and should maintain social distancing throughout. Ideally meetings should be held in well-ventilated rooms or, if possible, outside.

Other people’s homes

Ahead of visiting someone’s home, workers should discuss with that household whether social distancing is possible and ask that all internal doors are left open to minimise contact. They should identify busy areas in the household and try to minimise movement here. Workers should wash their hands on arrival and maintain social distancing where possible. Where jobs are repetitive, the same workers should be assigned to the same households. Where possible, they should travel alone and use their own means of transport. If not possible – for example, for delivery teams – shared journeys should be made by the same individuals each time and good ventilation maintained in vehicles.

Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery

Kitchen access should be limited to as few people as possible and interaction between kitchen staff and other workers minimised – including during breaks. Contact at handover points when food is given to waiting staff should also be minimised. The guidance recognised it can be difficult in kitchens to rearrange workstations such as sinks, hobs and ovens, but employers should consider installing cleanable panels to separate them in larger kitchens. Access to walk-in freezers and pantries should be limited to one person at a time.

Shops and branches

Shops should limit the number of customers who can enter at once so they can reasonably practice social distancing – taking into account floor space and pinch points. Employers should consider limiting the customer service they provide to services that can be offered safely, with clearly designated positions that maintain social distancing. All payments should be made contactless where possible.

Vehicles

Vehicles should be cleaned regularly and have a sufficient supply of hand sanitiser and cleaning products. Where there is more than one person working in the same vehicle, they should work in fixed teams and if possible be separated by screens. Contact should be kept to a minimum with customers by minimising in-person payment and signing of packages, and pre-arranging areas for goods to be dropped off at.

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