Are you Covid-secure? How to ensure your business can welcome staff back to the workplace safely

Thursday 10th September 2020

With the government now actively encouraging people to return to the workplace, employers are being asked to reassure staff it is safe for them to do so by highlighting the steps taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As part of this campaign, businesses are being encouraged to assist the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by ensuring their premises are COVID-secure. In addition, the HSE has also committed to conducting spot inspections to ensure they have appropriate hygiene measures in place and are COVID-secure. Any businesses found to be non-compliant will be at risk of enforcement action.

So how can you ensure your business is able to welcome staff back to the workplace safely?

What is COVID-secure?

COVID-secure is government guidance, delivered in a series of 14 guidance documents, providing detailed information to business owners and those responsible for health and safety on how to make their businesses safer for returning workers, and now customers. That guidance was last updated on 10 September 2020 by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

To be COVID-secure will mean different things to different businesses who operate across a range of sectors. In general terms, for a business to be COVID secure, it will have to:

  • Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment
  • Decide who should be working from business premises and when
  • Collect details and maintain records of staff, customers, and visitors for those business in the hospitality, tourism, and close-contact services (barbers, hairdressers etc.)
  • Implement and enforce social distancing (two metres where possible or one metre plus with risk mitigation, use screens between staff and customers where possible etc.)
  • Implement cleaning, handwashing, and hygiene procedures in line with guidance and your risk assessment
  • Think about natural bottlenecks such as entrances and exits – consider staggering arrival times for staff, visitors, and guests
  • Consider how people move around your premises (i.e. one-way systems/closing off non-essential areas)
  • Check building ventilation
  • Provide appropriate PPE to mitigate the risks identified in your risk assessment where other measures are not available

How to prepare for an HSE inspection

Unless there is a specific concern or issue requiring attendance by an inspector, businesses should expect to be contacted by telephone and/or email. The HSE inspectors will be looking for evidence as to how your business has responded to the risk from the coronavirus infection being spread and the measures you have implemented to mitigate this risk.

An inspector is likely to ask for information and copies of your risk assessments, method statements along with information, training and instruction that you have provided to your staff, and measures you have in place for informing your customers about how you are dealing with the risk. This may lead to follow-up requests for specific information, for example about your mitigation measures, personal protective equipment and even the alcohol volume in the hand gel being used.

HSE Inspectors have the power to carry out unannounced visits, however as signatories to the Government’s code on exercising powers of entry it is usual for businesses to be given advance notice. When an inspector is on site, it is unlikely that they will limit their enquiries to assessing simply whether your business is COVID secure.

The HSE’s guidance states that the inspector may ask about workers and what they do, look at any possible health risks arising from the work being done, look at any machinery or other equipment, ask to see records or other documents, and take photographs.

How will the HSE enforce compliance?

Where the HSE Inspector finds evidence of a non-compliance, hazard, or serious risk they are likely to take enforcement action. The action that the HSE may take will depend on several factors and their enforcement methods range from:

  • Providing information and verbal advice
  • Issuing a notice of contravention
  • Issuing an improvement notice
  • Issuing a prohibition notice
  • Bringing a prosecution

Where the HSE issues a formal notice of contravention or enforcement notice, it will also apply a Fee For Intervention which allows the HSE to recover its costs for investigating and taking enforcement action. The amount of the fee varies depending on how much time the inspector has spent on your case, and an hourly rate is then applied.

It is open to every business to challenge the HSE’s decision to issue a contravention or enforcement notice or defend itself in court if you are being prosecuted.

Our specialist regulatory team can help your business if you have been visited by the HSE, are expecting a visit, or are currently subject to enforcement action. Please visit our Regulatory & Compliance page for more information.