21/05/2020

Back to Work Safely: Protecting Physical and Psychological Safety

As lockdown restrictions are eased, businesses are turning their attention to getting back to work safely. The UK Government has produced guidance for a range of industries, but while these checklists form a good starting point, each business is unique, say Richard Thomas and Mark Littlejohns.

You need to focus on how the situation affects you, your staff and your customers, and put in a system that meets their specific needs. This means developing a comprehensive and tailored risk assessment that takes into consideration both physical and psychological safety, supported by appropriate policies and procedures.

The Government have provided extra funding to the HSE to undertake spot checks of the workplace along with investigating complaints so it is important that you get this right, not just from a moral point of view but also from a legal and financial angle.

Physical safety

Any risk assessment should start with a physical inspection of your premises. A good consultant would spend time with you there, because it’s important to not only see the space, but also understand how it is normally used.

This will help identify which alterations and measures you need to put in place. These may include physical modifications to the property, in which case you may need to obtain your landlord’s consent. If you’re unsure about your lease related obligations, it would be wise to seek the advice of a commercial property lawyer.

Other legal considerations include updating your health and safety policy and safe working procedures. Depending on the nature of your work, you may be required to provide your staff with additional PPE, train them about new requirements for safe working, and alter your first aid and fire arrangements. These should be supported by statutory, emergency and routine maintenance and inspection.

Employees may be far more inclined to assert their views regarding appropriate safety in the workplace. If they suffer any detriment (such as disciplinary action or demotion) or are dismissed after expressing their concerns, they may issue an Employment Tribunal claim arguing that any detriment or dismissal is unlawful. To ensure smooth functionality and avoid Employment Tribunal claims when business resumes, having up-to-date policies and procedures, and ensuring managers are up to speed with their content and the legal position regarding employee Health & Safety, will be key.

While you may be able to put in place some of these measures by yourself, like increasing the supplies in hand sanitiser or putting tape on the floor for social distancing, carrying out the risk assessment and implementing changes on your own can be risky. For example, using dangerous products to remove the virus may in turn cause chemical hazards, and moving pieces of furniture with your staff, ergonomic hazards.

Psychological safety

Another likely consequence of the pandemic is an increase of anxiety and mental health issues – directly related to the return to work, or to financial concerns, relationship difficulties, childcare issues… Either way, it’s important that you consider how you can best help and support these individuals. You may need to place additional wellbeing initiatives, improve your escalation process, and communicate more regularly with your employees, so that they know what to do should they begin to feel unwell, both in the workplace and at home.

While you should try to make your employees feel as safe as possible, they have the right to refuse to come to work if they reasonably believe they are in imminent danger. This danger can take various form – not just in the workplace but also during their commute. Because everyone’s situation is different, you should deal with such cases on an individual basis.

Your business, or an individual department within it, may have to operate differently. This may pose some problems with staff on the perceived difference in standards, so it is important to be open and honest, with a clear two-way communication programme established to facilitate concerns. When selecting and implementing additional controls, you should consider inclusion, equality and diversity issues, so a collaboration with HR may be vital in getting the balance right.

Have conversations

These examples are not exhaustive, as each organisation will face different challenges. Any solution will also need to be reviewed and revised as the situation evolve, informed by the latest guidance and research available. But one thing remains constant: having conversations with your staff, partners, customers, trade union, health and safety consultants and legal advisors is essential to ensure both the physical and psychological safety of your employees as they return to work and thereafter.