How to check for hidden hazards in the COVID-secure workplace

The Government and the Health and Safety Executive have produced detailed guidelines to help the UK return to work.

Although guidance on facemasks continues to evolve, we’re already familiar with the basics about washing hands, frequent cleaning and social distancing. The guidance for businesses also includes sector-specific advice, covering issues like PPE and goods handling for retail staff, and sanitation in restaurant kitchens and hotels.

Unfortunately, as the new COVID-secure advice is implemented, there is a risk that existing health and safety best practice is neglected. Both employees and employers should consider virus transmission risks in the wider context of workplace safety.

Which COVID-secure measures apply?

The Government’s “5 steps to working safely” sets out the importance of risk assessments, hygiene procedures, home working, and social distancing. How the guidance applies in practice will vary from workplace to workplace.

Chris Salmon of Quittance said, “A bespoke COVID-19 risk assessment is a critical and legally required first step towards protecting staff and customers from the virus.”

“The assessment should be carried out by someone familiar with the business’s existing health and safety management protocols and best practice. If the existing rules are not considered, there is a danger that the new COVID rules are incompatible with your other health and safety procedures.”

“Given that staff are rightly sensitive to virus risks, it is likely that workers will resolve any confusion or rules conflict in favour of the new guidelines, even if that unwittingly makes the workplace more dangerous.”

How could COVID-secure measures put staff and customers at risk?

Measures like social distancing, reduced staffing and staggered shifts are all effective measures to reduce transmission risk. On a basic level, fewer staff means that there will be fewer people available to assist in the event of an emergency.

If a worker or customer needs medical assistance, will a first aider be present? Is a fire safety officer present in the event of an incident or drill?

Examples of sector-specific hazards include:

Risks in the retail sector

Retail advice recommends using one-way and queue systems to aid customers with social distancing. Once these measures are in place and being used, are fire safety standards still being met? In the event of a fire, will people know where to go?

If cleaning is being carried out more frequently, when the shop is open to customers, is there sufficient signage to warn of spills and slip hazards? Do staff know how to use stronger cleaning products?

If deliveries are being placed in a 72-hour quarantine, where will these goods be stored? Have general protocols been updated to account for the extra warehouse management that quarantine measures could take?

Hospitality hazards

Consider all the tasks that would normally require two or more employees, such as guest room turndown or removing waste. Are these tasks still safe if carried out by one person?

If the one-person version of the task takes longer, has the employee been informed of the revised expectations? If staff try to rush tasks to complete them in the same timeframe as before, there is a greater risk of work injury generally, and of stress-related harm in the longer-term.

The government recommends improving air flow where possible. If this involves opening more doors and windows, have these been risk assessed? Can staff safely open hard-to-reach windows that were rarely used before? Are fire doors or doors that create obstructions when open being used inappropriately?

You should also consider hazards like the risk of legionella exposure to staff or patrons when using air conditioning.

Hygiene training and occupational health

Professional cleaners are at risk of a range of occupational illnesses, including back strain, carpal tunnel and dermatitis. Even though staff may be cleaning more frequently under COVID guidelines, the risk of developing injuries like carpal tunnel is low.

There is, however, a risk of staff developing dermatitis if they are cleaning without gloves, using cleaning products incorrectly or washing hands much more frequently. This is a risk that must be managed proactively, as once an employee develops a skin condition, they will be less able and less willing to continue with the new hygiene regime.

There is also a risk that electronic equipment like EPOS systems and card readers are damaged by more frequent, improper cleaning. Surfaces may also be stained if the wrong cleaning products are used. You should seek guidance from the manufacturer or supplier if you have any concerns.

Clear guidance for non-standard cases

You should take care to provide clear guidance and reasoning in situations where your business is implementing a non-standard solution.

When handling deliveries in the warehouse, for example, the risk of a single worker sustaining a manual handling injury may be greater than the transmission risk between two workers carrying the same package. In this case, either explain the decision to prioritise manual handling safety, or find an alternative method to moving goods.

If the risk assessor decides that the risk of transmission is low enough that there’s no need to apply strict rules, such as in a well-spaced outdoor seating area, this should also be explained. If workers or visitors expect COVID rules and there aren’t any, they may invent their own, creating unforeseen safety risks. For example, tables may be moved further apart, blocking fire exit routes.

Don’t forget to apply health & safety basics to COVID solutions

When devising measures, consider the practical implementation of these rules and what will be required to fulfil them. Where will all the extra cleaning supplies be kept? Will staff be able to easily access PPE supplies or hand sanitiser? If the route to the storage room or cupboard will see much more footfall, is there enough room to maintain social distancing?

If workstations must be spaced further apart, can power, phone and network cables be adjusted to accommodate this safely? There is little benefit in managing transmission risk if doing so creates a more serious and ever-present trip hazard.

Communication and explanation

When developing and implementing COVID-secure procedures, you should involve the workers who will use them. Not only will greater transparency make it easier for you to communicate the intention behind each of the new rules, consulting with staff will also throw up issues that you may not have considered.

New rules that apply to customers or visitors should be clear and easy to follow, such as socially-distanced floor markers for queuing. If rules are confusing or create too much friction, shoppers will try to work around them.

Confused, non-compliant customers could increase both COVID and non-COVID safety risks, reducing consumers’ confidence that the environment is safe and harming your business’s recovery.

It’s unlikely that your business’s approach will be flawless from day one. If you treat the process of managing coronavirus risks as an open-ended, flexible and evolving task, you will have a better chance of avoiding an outbreak, avoiding other hazards, and building staff and customer confidence.

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Chris Salmon, Director

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Chris Salmon, Director