On Monday, May 11th, the UK Government published guidance to make workplaces as safe as possible and give people the confidence to go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Whilst the Government has advised that all employees should work from home where possible this is obviously not viable for all sectors, including those in manufacturing, construction, and retail.
After weeks of uncertainty, many key sectors are able to take their first steps to get back on their feet.
Workplaces are now able to begin implementing safety measures including the undertaking of COVID-19 Risk Assessments but is this enough for employers to remain compliant across all of their legal Health and Safety duties?
In the following Q&A, Managing Director of OHS, Andy Fowler utilises his experience in health & safety compliance to give an insight into how OHS Clients’ Health & Safety operations have been impacted and how companies are now implementing measures.
Over the past 3 months, how has lockdown impacted OHS and the businesses you serve?
Across the main sectors we serve, including Construction, Local Authority, Education, Healthcare, and Retail, each has undoubtedly been impacted in their own way with their own challenges. Initially, we saw a mixed landscape with construction clients unsure whether they could safely and legally go ahead with projects and in some cases complete Health & Safety teams were being furloughed.
In the cases where premises have been closed completely and crucial Health and Safety teams have been furloughed, annual compliance duties such as Asbestos Re-inspection surveys, legionella monitoring, and Fire Safety checks have been left undertaken for the duration.
With many of these teams now returning to work, it would be logical to think that these tasks would be a priority, however with COVID-19 safety measures now top of all employers’ health and safety to-do lists, many of these annual checks are falling lower and lower down the priority list.
I’m pleased to report that of the clients we work with who have found themselves returning back to their places of work with growing priority lists, OHS has been on hand and able to quickly and safely consult on the safety plans and measures to be put in place on a tight timeframe.
One of the most notable challenges one of our clients faced who is a Middle East based Retail Group, was the planned opening of 8 stores in shopping centres across the UK. What was planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic including legionella risk assessments, and statutory fire checks now had to be factored into our scope of work with the client working completely remotely and on different time zones.
That said, even with the inability for the client to physically visit the stores to oversee the planned works due to travel restrictions, I am pleased to report that OHS was quick to find solutions around this.
By liaising directly with the shopping centres on our client’s behalf and utilising our compliance management software to keep records and photos of all progress, the client was able to be updated every step of the way.
What have you seen clients do differently since lockdown began?
For those of our clients who were forced to close premises such as those in the retail and local authority sector, many used this as an opportunity to look at where their planned remedial works for the year could be brought forward. This has included the programming of asbestos remedial works at shops and schools where complete access to all areas of the buildings is available due to it being vacant and therefore not posing any risk to employees or members of the public.
OHS operates in a sector which is renowned for its deep cleaning techniques and the mitigation of exposure to asbestos through the controlled environment for workers and the protective safety equipment they wear. This has ensured when undertaking any works during the pandemic, we have been able to use these techniques and adopt them for all other works to ensure our staff are protected as well as leaving a safe and clean environment for those returning to the places of work.
We have also been working with clients to undertake training gap analysis of their teams, and from here we have been able to create remote and flexible training schedules.
Ultimately we have seen a lot of clients just wanting to utilise this unplanned downtime as productively as possible, to plan for the next 12 months but also ensure the reopening of their businesses will be done as safely as possible.
Do you think employers are ready to welcome back employees?
It has been a very challenging time for many employers and Health & Safety teams, especially those that are now or soon to be returning to work after several months on furlough.
Whilst many of our clients who have been remote working have been using this time to undertake e-learning and upskill their teams we have heard from others who are quite simply overwhelmed with the prospect of returning from furlough with so many urgent and priority tasks to undertake.
From ensuring missed annual safety audits and surveys can now be re-booked, through to implementing COVID-19 safety measures.
In the instance of the latter we have been on hand to consult on short timeframe compliance plans, taking into account the sector specific risks and requirements of implementing new measures to safeguard employees and members of the public.
What are the main areas of H&S focus employers should be giving at this moment in time?
Each sector we work with will have its own challenges and requirements and therefore a one fits all approach would not be suitable. This is why we have been working with clients to assess how their planned health and safety programme has been impacted and how we can adapt this to ensure they remain compliant.
In particular, we have seen instances of businesses who rely on their water supply for the nature of their business, such as the leisure and hospitality sector. Something that many employers may not be considering right now is the fact that buildings that are closed or have had reduced occupancy could face legionella challenges.
Due to the lack of use, water stagnation can significantly increase the risks of Legionnaires’ disease, causing a huge risk to staff and members of the public.
An assessment of the water systems within a building relating to the risk posed by waterborne pathogens is therefore critical before re-occupation of premises for any use.
It should also go without saying that any business that is due to reopen should be ensuring they have all the correct and up to date Government guidance and where possible the support of specialist compliance providers, as they navigate their way to restarting business.
OHS have been working with clients to undertake a COVID-19 Risk Assessment Package in line with the government requirements. This includes undertaking an initial assessment of the additional hazard that COVID-19 presents, assessing who may be at risk and providing the guidance of the controls required to implement.
How can OHS help?
During the Coronavirus pandemic, our team at OHS have been working tirelessly to ensure our existing clients are given the full support required to address and implement safety measures and ensure they remain compliant.
We have also found we are working with new clients who haven’t been able to access their usual level of service from their current providers, this has been due to providers operating at a much lower capacity and the complexities in navigating the new challenges the pandemic has presented.
We also realise that for our customers, being able to access a range of specialist health and safety services, often from one provider, is more vital now than ever before.