Our specialist health and safety lawyers reflect on some of the key learnings and principles relating to health and safety risk management arising from queries received during the pandemic. These should act as a reminder of the fundamental principles of effective risk management.
Workforce engagement is key and vital to recovery planning
Ashley Borthwick comments that:
"We received a number of queries relating to the duty to consult employees/health and safety representatives in relation to health and safety matters at the outset of the pandemic as it is emphasised in the 'COVID secure' guidance.
"Lip service was often paid to this duty which, for some businesses, may have reflected a lack of appetite across all parts of the business to engage with these matters.
"The pandemic has changed this position as workforces now want to understand what steps are being taken to ensure their workplace is 'COVID secure' and engage in discussions regarding different ways of working. A transparent and collaborative approach in respect of health and safety matters will therefore be a key part of an effective recovery plan as restrictions are lifted."
Risk assessment is a proactive and continuous process
A common misunderstanding is often that it is a case of "'job done" once a COVID-related risk assessment has been carried out and that no further action is required.
Jon Cooper explains:
"The continuously evolving workplace safety guidance and legislation during the pandemic has highlighted the proactive and ongoing duties relating to risk assessments to ensure that they are kept up-to-date and remain fit for purpose.
"In particular, risk assessments should be reviewed when there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid (e.g. following an accident or 'near miss') or there has been a significant change to matters addressed in the risk assessment (e.g. to the equipment used).
"Businesses will need to continue to review COVID risk assessments as workplace guidance and legislation continues to evolve."
It's health, safety AND welfare
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the duty of employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The focus is often on physical health but that duty also extends to mental health and wellbeing.
Francesca Hodgson comments that:
"It's important to create a culture, led by management, in which people are able to recognise these issues and feel comfortable with raising them. Support services should be made available to assist people in such difficult circumstances. It is important to consider mental health issues as part of risk assessments and also by management when making decisions impacting working arrangements. Employers may find helpful the HSE's guidance in relation to tackling work-related stress."
We also support clients by running in-house wellbeing training sessions for employees. Delivered by Davina Watson, WBD Lawyer, Executive Coach and NLP Practitioner, these sessions focus on practical tools designed to increase resilience and wellbeing.
It's not all about PPE
Headlines in the media regarding the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the outset of the pandemic helped to fuel the misconception that PPE was the solution. Government guidance has, however, always been clear that the risk of COVID-19 in a non-clinical context should be managed through social distancing, hygiene and fixed teams/partnering and not through the use of PPE.
Stephen Panton says:
"Consideration should always be given to designing out risks when planning. If this is not possible, then you should consider control measures which mean that workers are not entirely reliant upon the use of PPE to ensure their safety. We often see risk assessments relating to work at height that specify PPE as the control measure (such as a harness and lanyard) without applying a hierarchy of control. As a result people are placed at risk that could have been avoided. For example, using specialist lifting equipment or installing collective edge protection (like scaffolding) in addition to the use of PPE."
Don't get complacent, it's not over yet
Employers cannot afford to become complacent in respect of the monitoring and enforcement of COVID-related workplace policies and procedures, particularly in light of more transmissible strains of the virus becoming more prevalent.
Emphasis is often placed upon the creation of policies and procedures but it is equally as important to ensure that they are being followed in practice to avoid a culture of tolerance to unsafe behaviour which significantly increases the risk of people being harmed at work.
The Health and Safety Executive has also made it clear that it is carrying out spot checks and inspections to ensure that workplaces are 'COVID-secure'.
We are here to help
For any queries on workplace health and safety matters, please contact our dedicated health and safety team.