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Protecting workplaces amid COVID-19: a best practice guide

29 May 2020: Phil Clarke, head of Health and Safety at Nuffield Health, shares his advice and insights on the best ways ICAEW finance professionals can manage preparations around a potential migration back to their offices.

Former British Army veteran Clarke looks after all the charitable organisation’s health and safety (H&S) concerns across its 16,000 staff, 31 independent hospitals, 112 fitness and wellbeing clubs and over 160 workplace wellbeing services.

The core tenet, says Clarke, is that if employees do not need to physically be present at their place of work, and they can work from home, then they should continue to do so. 

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the people best-placed to manage the risk are those deemed to be in control of the premises, says Clarke, “so it is down to individual companies to manage their risk”.

Clarke points to five key steps businesses should implement, all of which are contained in new government guidelines.

The first is to carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment by following a company’s “normal risk assessment process that most organisations will have if they’re over five employees”, then consult with their staff and trade union if there is one, before sharing those results with the workforce.

The government also advises that the results of each risk assessment should be made available to the public, have it available upon request, or simply publish it on their website.

Next up is hygiene. Firms should ensure employees are hand washing “on a regular basis”, surfaces are cleaned, that hand sanitisers are placed strategically around the workplace in washrooms and that “touchpoints” are regularly checked, with busy areas cleaned more frequently. 

Hot desking “should be discouraged at the moment, but if you do have to have them, make sure people have the right tools and equipment to disinfect the area before the next person uses it and that it is cleaned thoroughly after each use”, says Clarke. 

Third on the list is social distancing.

“We’re all aware of it but not necessarily all following it,” says Clarke wryly, “as we can see from the various press and TV pictures from the beach, but it’s important that where possible, people maintain two metres between them, especially in a multiple occupancy office.

“Put desks out of use or change the layout and if possible have a one-way system.

“If members of the public do come in, make sure they are greeted two metres away.

Reception areas where visitors go to sign in should “perhaps be at a desk two metres away”, while visitor books and pens will need to be disinfected regularly.

Clarke, who is also a chartered environmental health officer with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, says sanitisers should be as available for visitors as staff.

“Again, I return to the first point - do people need to be in the office? Do you need to have visitors, or can it be done remotely?”

Other options are considering back to back working, using screens and barriers or staggering peoples’ arrival and departure times, which means dispensing with traditional 9-5 in a bid to limit the number of people in the office at the same time.

If you absolutely have to be in the office, you’ve managed to do your risk assessment and put in place measures to correctly socially distance, and put the appropriate hygiene measures in place, Clarke says organisations then need to consider if anyone is especially vulnerable or have pre-existing conditions. If the answer is yes, the strong advice is they must stay at home. And anyone that has any symptoms of COVID-19 should equally stay home and self isolate.

Other helpful tips in situations where you can’t socially distance include consider using lifts solely for going up and stairs for coming down, or for those with mobility issues, keep the lifts for their use, both up and down. 

Meeting rooms follow the same two-metre rule, but wherever possible use remote meeting tools such as Zoom. 

Water cooler moments should be avoided, says Clarke, by putting them out of use, while touchpoint and contamination issues arise around common kettles and coffee machine areas. Such areas will need vigorous policing to ensure equipment has been sanitized or encourage people to bring in their own cups, for example.

The recurring mantra is always “if you can stay at home and work from home, do it”, stresses Clarke.

Once all the assessments have been completed the government recommends displaying a ‘Staying COVID-19 Secure in 2020’ poster on the premises to show that you’ve followed the guidelines and are doing your best to keep everyone safe.