With COVID 19 presenting continued risk to public health, maintaining good workplace hygiene remains a top priority for employers to ensure the health and safety of their workforce and of anyone visiting their premises, and in helping to prevent the spread of the virus. By providing clean and safe premises, employers can also help to instil confidence in staff and visitors alike, and avoid issues such as personnel complaints about hygiene standards.
Below we look at what practising good workplace hygiene means for UK employers in the context of coronavirus, and what practical steps can be taken to create a safe and hygienic working environment in accordance with an employer’s legal duty of care and best practice guidelines.
The importance of workplace hygiene
Workplace hygiene refers to the standards of cleanliness that employers are expected to meet in ensuring that they provide a healthy working environment in which their staff can work, as well as clean and safe premises for members of the public to visit. It also refers to maintaining acceptable standards of cleanliness and safety for products to be manufactured or services to be carried out in accordance with any regulatory requirements.
The hygiene requirements applicable to a workplace can differ from business to business, depending on the industry and the nature of the work being undertaken. In some cases, where there is a high risk of bacterial or viral contamination, special health and safety measures may be required. A good example of this would be in the preparation of food, where there is a high risk of food poisoning from salmonella, e-coli and campylobacter.
However, there are some key areas of workplace hygiene that all employers are required to address in reducing the risk of infection and illness from bacteria, germs and viruses. These include work area cleanliness, clean restroom and kitchen facilities, and personal hygiene.
The law on workplace hygiene
All employers, regardless of size, have a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, as well as the health and safety of other people who might be affected by their business. This duty is set out under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
An important requirement in meeting this duty is for employers to take all steps, as far as is reasonably practicable, to prevent any infection or illness arising as a result of poor hygiene standards. This means that all employers must identify any contamination risks to which an employee may be exposed and implement appropriate measures to control these risks.
In addition, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require all employers to carry out a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the potential risks to health and safety to which their employees are exposed at work, and the health and safety of any visitors “arising out of or in connection with” the way in which the business is run.
Collectively, the statutory provisions require employers to:
- assess the risks associated with illness and infection raising from contamination
- put in place adequate controls to minimise these risks in the workplace
- appoint competent people to oversee this risk management process
- provide information to employees about the risks to their health
- arrange for training on workplace hygiene and infection control, where necessary.
If you have five or more employees you must also have a written health and safety policy statement, recording the significant findings of your risk assessment and setting out how you manage health and safety in your organisation.
Why is hygiene so important in the workplace?
Health hazards can easily be caused in the workplace by either an unhygienic and poorly maintained environment or because of the poor personal hygiene of staff. Where employers fail to implement high standards of workplace hygiene in respect of both their premises and their people, or to put in place effective measures to ensure that these practices are adhered to, this inevitably will create an increased risk to the health of employees and visitors alike.
Ensuring workplaces are safe and hygienic is therefore essential for employers, not only in meeting their statutory duty to ensure the health and safety of employees and members of the public, but also in minimising the risk of ill health and transmittable disease.
Workplaces have long been environments where bacteria, germs and viruses can quickly spread from one person to the next, especially where employees are required to work in close proximity to each other. In some businesses, at least prior to the pandemic, there has also been a strong culture of presenteeism, where staff would be encouraged to work while sick, rather than take time off for minor ailments like the common cold.
In stark contrast, in the context of coronavirus, employees showing signs of a common cold are now encouraged to stay at home. Unsurprisingly, given the serious health risks associated with the spread of coronavirus, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of workplace hygiene. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest occupational health and safety challenge most employers will have ever had to face.
Workplace hygiene practices to protect against coronavirus
While many employees are continuing to work remotely, key workers and skeleton staff across the UK are still going into their normal place of work. It is therefore imperative that these employees, together with any members of the public visiting these premises, are properly safeguarded from the risk of the spread of coronavirus.
Coronavirus can easily transfer from people to surfaces, being passed on to others who then touch the same surfaces. Keeping your workplace clean and promoting good standards of personal hygiene is a critical part of making your workplace safe and reducing the potential for the virus to spread. In accordance with government and HSE guidance, employers should focus on the following key areas of workplace hygiene.
A regular cleaning routine
A regular cleaning routine is a simple but effective way to improve workplace hygiene and prevent the spread of coronavirus. To meet best practice standards, you may need to increase how often and how thoroughly you normally clean your premises, as well as cleaning surfaces that would not normally clean. Your cleaning regime should include:
- Deep and periodic cleaning of all work, communal and transit areas, hiring external cleaners to clean your premises after hours where resources allow
- Keeping kitchens spotless including utensils, crockery, glassware and appliances, such as fridges, microwaves, kettles and toasters
- Keeping restrooms sanitary and well-stocked with soap and hand-towels or working hand-dryers, as wet skin can help to spread bacteria
- Disinfecting surfaces, work stations, conferencing facilities, equipment or vehicles after each and every use, where at all possible
- Regularly disinfecting hotspots, ie; surfaces that are frequently touched, such as door handles, windows, railings, bannisters, control panels, telephones and kitchen equipment.
You should also encourage staff to take responsibility for keeping their own work areas clean and sanitised, all well as any communal surfaces or areas that have been used by them, creating a collective responsibility to clean as they work.
Regular hand-washing & sanitising
Staff should be given clear guidance on how to hand wash and what technique should be used, with reminders as to how this is done, eg, posters placed outside restrooms, kitchens or other areas where standard hand-washing facilities are in place. You may need to put in place additional hand-washing facilities where these are lacking.
All employees and visitors should be provided with adequate washing facilities with running water, soap and paper towels or hand-dryers. They should also be provided with sanitiser, or sanitising stations, including at entry and exit points.
Good standards of personal hygiene
All members of staff should be strongly encouraged to practice good personal hygiene in the workplace, with reminders of the importance of hand-washing and the use of hand sanitisers. This should include regular advice to sanitise their hands before touching equipment, especially equipment that is shared. Staff should also be given reminders to avoid touching their faces, and to catch coughs and sneezes in a tissue or their arm.
COVID health & safety guidance
To stay safe in the workplace and to help control the spread of coronavirus you must have in place specific controls such as a risk assessment, safe systems of work, training and personal protective measures as part of an overall pandemic risk management strategy.
The Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) has developed a 7-step guide for workplace hygiene, to ensure that staff and visitors are adequately safeguarded:
- Assess: this is about assessing where there is potential for the virus to spread and controlling these risks. You will need to consider what activities, locations and workspace need to be restricted or reduced to minimise exposure to enable your staff to work safely.
- Minimise: this is about finding ways to minimise exposure through enhanced workplace hygiene tailored to your business. In addition to ensuring clean kitchen and restroom facilities with good sanitation, this will involve regular cleaning, wiping and disinfecting of workstations, equipment, transit areas and communal areas. It may also involve the provision of sanitiser, additional hand-washing facilities, protective gloves and face masks.
- Educate: this is about training staff in workplace hygiene and infection control. It is also about clearly communicating up-to-date advice and guidance to staff, including how to report possible symptoms of coronavirus to a manager.
- Define: this is about defining the required standards, rules and behavioural expectations that you have set, including workplace and personal hygiene.
- Monitor: this is about effectively managing staff and visitors, ensuring adherence to your enhanced health, safety and hygiene controls, as well as carefully monitoring staff health.
- Review: this is about regularly reviewing the latest government advice, and implementing new measures in response to any changes.
- Plan Ahead: this is about planning and preparing for the event of someone who works in or has visited your premises testing positive for, or showing signs of, coronavirus.
How should personal hygiene issues be dealt with at work?
The best way of dealing with personal hygiene issues at work is to foster a culture of good health and safety throughout your organisation. You should have in place a clear hygiene policy to ensure that everyone is involved in creating and maintaining a clean and safe working environment, and encouraged to practice good personal hygiene at all times.
Your workplace hygiene policy should outline the measures you are taking as an organisation to keep staff and visitors safe, your expectations of cleanliness, and the role workers play in maintaining high standards. In the context of coronavirus, this should include an emphasis on the importance of regular hand-washing and the use of hand sanitisers.
By promoting personal hygiene in this way, backed up by regular internal communications and displaying posters on cleanliness, this will ensure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities. Given the seriousness of the risks involved from the spread of coronavirus, you may also want to provide specific COVID-19 training to ensure that all your staff fully understand the importance of infection control.
Where a specific member of staff is failing to follow the advice and guidance given, it may be appropriate to initially address this via an informal chat, although strongly emphasising the importance of compliance. Where an employee’s personal hygiene continues to fall short of the standards required, putting themselves and others at risk of infection, this may need to be dealt with by way of disciplinary sanctions.
DavidsonMorris’ human resource specialists work with employers on all aspects of workforce management and employee wellbeing. Working closely with our team of employment lawyers, we offer a holistic solution to support with legal risk management while optimising performance and personnel welfare. For advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts today.
Workplace hygiene FAQs
How do you address personal hygiene in the workplace?
Personal hygiene in the workplace can be critical to maintaining a clean and safe working environment, especially in the context of coronavirus. It is therefore important that employers provide clear training and guidance on good hygiene, including washing and sanitising hands, and wearing masks where appropriate.
Can you get sacked for personal hygiene?
The personal hygiene of staff can be important for a business, not only in terms of image and reputation, but also in ensuring the health and safety of other employees and people visiting the premises. Where an employee fails to meet the necessary standards of personal hygiene, this could lead to disciplinary action being taken and even dismissal.
Last updated: 1 December 2020