With the recent lifting of lockdown restrictions, many employers will now be asking staff to return to the workplace. Ensuring the health and safety at work of staff and visitors remains paramount throughout this transition period.
The following guide for employers looks at how to conduct a COVID return to work risk assessment prior to their staff returning to the workplace setting.
Post-lockdown rules on returning to the workplace
Following the mass roll-out of the vaccination programme in the UK, all legal restrictions on social contact were lifted on 19 July 2021. This includes the rules on social distancing, the wearing of face masks in indoor settings and a removal of the government instruction to work from home. This means that employers can begin to plan a return to workplaces, although a “gradual” return over the following weeks is being encouraged by the government, with cautious guidance in place while COVID-19 cases remain prevalent.
As such, the move into step 4 of the government roadmap does not mean workplaces can immediately return to normal, with the updated guidance on “Working Safely During Coronavirus” introducing very few changes to the controls already being used in work settings.
The main change is that social distancing restrictions no longer apply. This means employers will not need to impose controls to keep staff and customers apart, although they should still try to reduce the number of people their staff come into contact with.
Under the guidance, employers must also conduct a COVID return to work risk assessment, taking all reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified, before asking staff to come back.
What is a COVID return to work risk assessment?
As a matter of law, employers must protect their employees, customers and any visitors from harm, including risks from the spread of COVID-19. Employers are also under a duty to consider any concerns employees and workers may raise in relation to health and safety issues at work, including COVID-related complaints or worries.
The risk of catching coronavirus is a workplace hazard that will need to be managed in the same way as any other hazard at work, including completing a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks and identifying control measures to manage that risk. A COVID return to work risk assessment is therefore an assessment by an employer of the risks at work to the health and safety of staff, and to the health and safety of anyone visiting workplace premises, relating to COVID-19 exposure, infection or transmission.
Most businesses will already have in place a workplace health and safety risk assessment, although this will now need to be updated to manage the risk of coronavirus at work and to reflect the latest government guidance on working safely. A generic risk assessment is unlikely to be detailed or specific enough, for instance, it might not identify sufficient cleaning controls or adequate ventilation requirements in response to the pandemic. Once updated, the risk assessment should then be shared with staff to make them aware of the changes made.
No industry or sector has been unaffected by the outbreak of COVID-19, although the risk of the spread of the virus can vary depending on the nature and size of a business. Specific information on risk assessments and what to include are therefore set out under the latest government guidance for a range of different types of work, including:
- Construction and other outdoor working environments
- Events and visitor attractions
- Hotels and guest accommodation
- Offices, factories, plants, warehouses, laboratories, research facilities and any other similar indoor environments
- Restaurants, pubs, bars, cafes, nightclubs and takeaway services
- Shops, branches, stores and similar environments, and for people who provide close contact services, including hairdressers and beauticians.
Why is a COVID return to work risk assessment important?
Under the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, all employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health and safety at work of their staff and any visitors to their premises. This means that each and every employer, regardless of size, should carry out a risk assessment that includes the risk from COVID-19 in accordance with the latest guidance.
A workplace risk assessment must be undertaken, and appropriate measures put in place to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19, even if:
- your staff have received a recent negative test result
- had both doses of the coronavirus vaccine, or
- have tested positive within the last 180 days and have natural immunity.
This is because it is still possible to catch and spread coronavirus, regardless of whether someone has already contracted the virus or been fully vaccinated.
Any failure to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, or to put in place sufficient measures to control and manage the risk, may be classed as a breach of health and safety law. If your business has fewer than 5 employees you don’t have to put your risk assessment in writing, although it might help so that this can be easily circulated amongst your workforce.
Conducting a COVID return to work risk assessment — and putting in place all reasonable measures to mitigate the risks identified — is a crucial step for employers in discharging their statutory duty under the 1974 Act. It’s also an important step in ensuring a smooth transition back to the office, or any other workplace setting, for furloughed or remote-working staff.
Although the green light has been given by the government for a gradual return to workplaces, many employees may have legitimate concerns about the spread of coronavirus at work or when travelling to work. Those not yet fully vaccinated or classed as clinically vulnerable, or have loved ones falling into either one of these categories, are likely to raise concerns. In other cases, an employee may simply be looking to limit the contact that they have with anyone they do not live with, so as to reduce the risk of catching or spreading the virus.
By showing your staff that you have properly assessed any health and safety risks at work, and taken appropriate measures to mitigate these risks, this can help to allay any concerns about returning to the workplace. This is especially important given that employers have a duty not only to ensure the health and safety of staff, but also their welfare.
Employees may also be legally entitled to refuse to return to the workplace if they reasonably believe that this will pose a risk of serious and imminent danger to either themselves or loved ones. The implementation of a safe system of work, following a comprehensive COVID risk assessment, will help to reduce the likelihood of staff refusing to return to work for this reason, and in promoting and protecting their mental health and wellbeing.
How to conduct a COVID return to work risk assessment
As a matter of best practice, all employers should follow the latest guidance provided by the government to assess the risks within the workplace from COVID-19, and to decide which measures are appropriate to adopt. This will depend on the nature and size of your organisation, as well as how your business is organised, operated, managed and regulated.
In the long-term, it is anticipated that fewer precautions will need to be taken to manage the risk of the spread of coronavirus at work. For the time being, however, especially as we are now in what is described as the third wave of the pandemic, you must carefully follow the guidance.
As part of your risk assessment to help identify and manage the risks of COVID-19, you should:
- identify what activities or situations at work might cause transmission of coronavirus
- identify who could be at risk, including workers, visitors, contractors and delivery drivers
- assess the likelihood of any one of these people or groups of people being exposed
- identify the controls needed to reduce the risk of exposure or transmission.
The government guidance on reducing the risk of COVID-19 does not supersede your existing legal obligations relating to health and safety in the workplace, or equality at work between those with different protected characteristics. As an employer, it is therefore important that you continue to comply with your existing obligations. In particular, you should take into account any reasonable adjustments needed for staff and customers with disabilities.
You should also consider the risk to groups of workers who are at higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus, and put controls in place to reduce their exposure. This includes pregnant workers and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
Health & safety & returning to work
As an employer, you must take all reasonable steps to manage any risks from the spread of coronavirus within the workplace. The aim here is to reduce the risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures. The following priority measures set out under the government guidance must be implemented in all workplaces, including:
- identifying poorly ventilated areas and taking steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas
- cleaning those surfaces that are regularly touched, and asking your staff and customers to wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitiser
- ensuring that any staff and customers who are either self-isolating or unwell do not attend
- allowing customers to check in at your premises by displaying an NHS QR code poster
- making all staff and customers aware of the control measures that you’ve implemented.
More detailed guidance is set out for specific types of work, suggesting different ways to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus. However, none of these measures can help manage and control the transmission of COVID-19 on their own, where your assessment should identify a package of measures suitable for your workplace. This could include anything from regular COVID-19 testing to staggering the times people start or finish work, or any other ways in which you can reduce the amount of contact your staff have with other people.
As an employer, you are under a legal duty to consult workers on any health and safety matters. You can do this by consulting with any recognised trade union representatives and by directly engaging in dialogue with staff about the work they do and how you will manage the risks from COVID-19. By talking to your staff about the control measures you’re considering putting in place, they can provide valuable insight into how you could reduce the risks for them.
Having conducted a return to work risk assessment, and put in place a range of control measures to reduce any risk to your staff or visitors, you will need to monitor and supervise these measures to make sure they continue to provide adequate protection. In this way, you can ensure the controls you have are working as expected.
Our employment law specialists are on hand to provide advice to employers on return to work strategies and workforce issues relating to COVID health & safety. Working closely with our HR consultants, we offer holistic guidance to promote positive employee relations while minimising complaints when leading your business through the return to work transition. To reduce legal risk while protecting your business’ commercial interests, speak to our experts today.
COVID return to work risk assessment FAQs
What is a return to work risk assessment?
A return to work risk assessment following the lifting of lockdown restrictions involves identifying what work activity or situations might cause transmission of coronavirus, who is at risk and what controls are needed to reduce that risk.
Does my company need to conduct a return to work assessment after covid lockdown?
Every employer is under a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of its staff, and the health and safety of any visitors. As such, every business must conduct a COVID-19 return to work risk assessment.
Last updated: 10 Jul7 2021