The Health and Safety Executive has recently released details of how it is contacting and carrying out spot checks and inspections on many businesses in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent months, some HSE inspection results have made headlines. In Cleveland inspectors raised several concerns at the police headquarters following a Covid inspection, another inspection found serious failings in maintaining social distancing at the DWP office in Leeds, and a pathology company that processes COVID-19 test samples for the NHS was found to be putting staff at risk of infection through multiple breaches of health and safety rules. The company had told couriers boxes in which they transport samples required cleaning only once a week. The company had also failed to provide training in the safe use of personal protective equipment and may not have provided enough space for social distancing in rest areas.
Purpose Of The Visits
HSE inspectors visit thousands of businesses every year, but these visits have taken on new importance since the spread of COVID-19. The calls and visits mean inspectors can check the workplace is COVID-secure with measures in place according to government guidance. They are also an opportunity for inspectors to talk to employers, workers and their representatives. Inspectors can also pass on expert advice on how to manage risks in a business and protect workers, customers and visitors. The HSE is also assisting local authorities in the sectors they regulate, such as retail and hospitality.
Ensuring the workforce is aware of the risks and are following procedures designed to keep the workplace COVID-secure is paramount. The HSE has a downloadable document for employers on talking with workers about preventing coronavirus. It includes sections on organising the workplace, passing on the correct information and guidance, and wellbeing and support.
If an employer or business owner receives a call from the HSE, they must participate and engage with the HSE under health and safety law. As well as participating in phone calls and visits, there are sensible and proportionate steps employers should take to help keep their workplace COVID-secure. These include carrying out a COVID-19 risk assessment, maintaining social distancing and keeping the workplace clean by following handwashing and hygiene procedures.
COVID-19 Risk Assessments
An employer has to protect people from harm when they interact with the business. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect workers and others from coronavirus. A COVID-19 risk assessment should help to manage risk and protect people, and although a business with fewer than five employees does not have to have a written risk assessment, it is advisable to have one. It would be useful if an HSE inspector arrives at your premises.
A COVID-19 risk assessment must:
- identify the work-related activities or situations that might cause transmission of the virus
- decide how likely it is that someone could become exposed
- help remove the activity or situation, or if this is not possible, control the risk
The risk assessment must also identify who could be at risk. Public Health England has released a report Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19 that shows that some groups of people may be at more risk of being infected and/or suffer an adverse outcome if infected. The higher-risk groups include those who:
- are older males
- have a high body mass index (BMI)
- have health conditions such as diabetes
- are from some Black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds
The HSE has produced a downloadable document on what to include in a COVID-19 risk assessment.
Social distancing is the practice of keeping people apart to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. Where possible, people should keep at least 2m apart. If this is not possible, the HSE has issued guidance for additional control measures.
The HSE also has more information on using social distancing to make a workplace more COVID-secure. It includes advice on how to organise common areas, like meeting rooms, break areas and toilets, managing movement around buildings and worksites, and using vehicles for business.
Coronavirus can transfer from people to surfaces. It can then be passed on to others who touch the same surfaces. Keeping a workplace clean and frequent handwashing reduces the potential for coronavirus to spread in this manner and is a critical part of making and keeping a business COVID-secure.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed the virus remains viable on plastic for up to 72 hours and stainless steel for up to 48 hours. It survives on cardboard for up to 24 hours and just four hours on copper. There is no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted from fabrics, although it is recommended that fabric is cleaned if it is coughed or sneezed upon.
The HSE has released more advice on cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures to make a workplace COVID-secure.
Where businesses are not managing the risks of spreading coronavirus HSE inspectors can take immediate action by providing advice and guidance and even stopping certain work practices until they can be performed safely. If there are serious problems, they can issue enforcement notices and prosecute if a business fails to comply.
Keeping a workplace covid secure and workers healthy enables a business to help stop the transmission and spread of coronavirus. The HSE advice, spot checks, and inspections help employers achieve that.