The Return of Office Working

With the recent Government announcement that current coronavirus restrictions in England will remain in place for a further four weeks, many employers who had been preparing for workers to return to the office on 21st June will have to delay their plans.  Following a prolonged period of ‘working from home’, many employers will welcome the prospect of a full return to the office in the near future.

However, it is clear that some employees would prefer to continue homeworking on a full time basis so it is likely that many employers will adopt some sort of balance between the two.  In any event, it is vital that employers carefully consider their health and safety obligations and plan how their staff can safely return to the workplace.

Current Law

An employer’s overarching obligations are set out in The Health and Safety at Work (NI) Order 1978 where it states that “it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees” and this duty is extended to anyone else who may be affected by the employer’s business.  The Order also puts legal responsibilities on employees to take reasonable care for their own and others’ health and safety and to cooperate with their employers to help them meet their duties.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (NI) 2000 specifically makes it a legal requirement for employers to carry out ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments.

In the current climate, it is extremely important that employers consider their existing health and safety responsibilities along with keeping up to date with the latest Government and HSE guidance and be prepared to adapt.  Failure to comply with health and safety law can result in both civil and criminal liabilities for employers.  The methods of enforcement available to HSENI include verbal warnings, letters of advice/recommendations, improvement and prohibition notices and formal cautions.  For more serious breaches, penalties may include fines, director disqualification or even imprisonment.

COVID-19 Risk Assessment

Most companies will already have a COVID-19 risk assessment in place, as it has been a requirement since the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak.  Within this risk assessment, employers should look at:

  • What work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus
  • Who could be at risk
  • How likely it is that someone could be exposed
  • Act to remove the activity or situation, or if this is not possible, to control the risk.

It is important that these risk assessments are updated and kept under regular review and communicated with staff.  If an employer has fewer than five employees, the risk assessment does not have to be written down but a documentary record is an easier way to demonstrate the risk assessment has taken place.

Further Measures to Consider:

  • Consultation with employees: There is an emphasis on the existing requirement to consult with employees in assessing workplace risk and in developing and reviewing workplace health and safety policies.  See  latest HSE guidance on talking with your worker about preventing coronavirus –
  • Provision of PPE: For example, installing Perspex screens at reception areas and in between desks etc. 
  • Monitoring: Keep a record of who is coming into the office to include visitors to the premises for NHS Test and Trace purposes.
  • Meetings: Conducted remotely rather than in person where possible. 
  • Provision of additional handwashing facilities throughout the office 
  • Keeping the workplace sufficiently clean: Consider increasing how often surfaces, communal areas and other regular touch points are cleaned.
  • Making sure all employees/visitors follow social distancing rules
  • Increase Ventilation: The latest guidance places emphasis on the use of ventilation to reduce the risk of aerosol transmission.

The above are examples of some measures that could be taken and is not intended to be an exhaustive list as each individual business will have its own specific risks and needs.

Should you require advice or assistance in relation to any of the above please do get in touch with Ashley Black in our Health and Safety Team or a member of our Employment Team