How can employers and employees reduce the spread of COVID-19?

Employers should provide suitable handwashing facilities in all workplaces, and/or hand sanitiser containing 60% or higher alcohol content where this is not possible, such as remote workplaces.

This is in addition to any specific measures – outlined below – to reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted between workers and/or members of the public.

All workplaces, equipment and vehicles should be regularly and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, with particular attention paid to objects and surfaces that are frequently touched, such as toilets, tea point areas, door entry switches, lift controls, printers etc. Cleaners should take care when disposing of cleaning materials.

Employees should be reminded of respiratory and hand hygiene measures.

They should also be reminded to self isolate at home if they have a temperature or a new, continuous cough.

In line with government advice, employees should work from home unless it is impossible for them to do so. Employers should facilitate this wherever possible.

Managing the risk during essential work

Like any health and safety issue, it is important to maintain a dialogue with your employer on the measures being taken to reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted. Employers have an obligation to consult health and safety representatives on the measures they are taking to reduce risk.

Employers that require members of staff to attend work to carry out essential tasks must take steps to reduce the risk of people becoming infected with the virus. Employers must carry out a risk assessment to establish what these steps are.

Priority should be given to methods that are more effective in reducing risk over less effective ones. This is known as the hierarchy of control.

On this basis, the first thing to consider is whether the work is necessary, or whether it can be left for another time. Only essential work should take place.

If the work is essential, the risk assessment should consider how employees will carry out the task safely while maintaining the recommended two metres separation between one another.

During the outbreak, it is likely that the workforce will be depleted. In these circumstances, employers will need to consider how the task will be carried out with fewer employees. Any workers who are required to carry out unfamiliar tasks must be given appropriate training.

Ways to maintain the social distancing rule include staggering shift starting times and break times, or reducing staffing numbers. It may also be possible to plan and sequence tasks so that social distancing can be maintained.

However, there will be occasions when maintaining two metres between people is not possible. In these circumstances, when evaluating your employer’s arrangements or when working with your employer to devise arrangements, ask yourself:

  • Have staff been briefed on how the virus is transmitted, and the measures they can take to protect themselves and others?
  • Are hand washing facilities or hand sanitiser readily available?
  • Has the duration of the task been kept to an absolute minimum?
  • Has the physical contact between individuals been reduced as much as possible?
  • Are as few people as safely possible present?
  • Can teams be kept together, or a buddy system introduced, so the risk of transmission to the wider workforce is decreased?
  • Can physical barriers, such as screens, be used to separate workers from other people?
  • Does anyone need to wear PPE? (See below.)
  • Can the task be completed outside, where the risk is likely to be lower?
  • Has unnecessary contact with surfaces been reduced as much as possible?
  • Has the hand to hand transfer of items such as tools been limited as much as possible?
  • Are shared tools and equipment cleaned between use?

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

In some circumstances, it may be necessary to use personal and/or respiratory protective equipment, for instance if employees come into contact with people who have or are suspected of having COVID-19.

Priority should be given to maintaining social distancing, including cancelling or delaying non-essential tasks. This is because, for PPE to be effective, individuals must accurately compliance with and interpret guidance, and it is easy for people to misuse, misapply or fail to use it.

FFP3 facemasks and other tight-fitting respirators rely on having a good seal with the wearer’s face. A face-fit test should therefore be carried out to ensure the mask can protect the wearer. See the HSE’s guidance on face-fit testing.

Beware that some PPE such as masks or eyewear can cause discomfort, and may encourage people to touch their faces, which can help coronavirus to spread.