John Marsh, Chairperson
Over the past few weeks as the Government restrictions have been relaxed, more businesses have begun to re-open and their employees have started to return to the workplace. But before they return employers need to ensure that they carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and that their premises are COVID-19 safe.
However, in the current climate where there is a lack of clear guidance, a shortage of PPE, hand sanitiser and in some cases a lack of soap and water, employees need to be aware of their legal rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
I believe that throughout the pandemic there has been no HSE enforcement even where there is evidence of employers not complying with their legal responsibilities to implement additional control measures to reduce the risks of exposure to COVID-19.
When carrying out risk assessments, consultation with employees is key before any return to the workplace is agreed and if the employee still believes that they are being exposed to additional risk then they have the right to refuse to return to his or her place of work under section 44 of the act. All risk assessments need to ensure that they are following the current COVID-19 safe risk assessments that have been produced by the HSE and that they are carried out by a competent person who needs to take into account how those risk assessments may impact on existing ones and how new control measures and the use of additional PPE may result in new risks to employees.
Health and wellbeing are more important today than ever before throughout this current pandemic and mental health should be a priority for all employers. Employers need to recognise that risk assessments are not just about the physical risks. They need to understand how those job tasks may impact on an individual’s mental health and those keyworkers who have continued to work throughout the pandemic may have found it a really stressful time.
By involving an employee in any return to work, discussions are only going to help alleviate any anxiety or concerns that they may have.
The governments advice is still where possible to work from home, but some organisations are demanding that their employees return to their workplaces, when in some cases it is not essential.
Within the workplace employees are possibly going to feel more anxious but employers also need to take into account any additional stress that their employees may feel under, especially if they have no option but to travel on overcrowded public transport and having to wear a face covering or mask. Employers need to also consider any regional spikes in the R value and consider delaying any return to work if possible, especially for those individuals who may have pre-existing medical and mental health issues.
However, employers need to consider how working from home for an increasing number of employees is becoming their new place of work and that carrying out risk assessments for those new home workers is essential and must be compliant with the DSE regulations.
The problem for most businesses and employees is that working from home was initially seen as a temporary measure but for a lot of organisations it is now going to be the preferred way of working in the future. Many employees have been working from home in an environment that is not ideal with many trying to work from kitchen tables rather than a proper desk or chair, often trying to cope with the additional family pressures such as child care, home schooling, domestic abuse or isolation from family or work colleagues.
It is so important to understand that not everyone copes well with working from home and those people who may have existing mental health issues or those employees who may be now experiencing mental health issues for the first time, will need to have access to mental health support and resources. Understanding the individual needs of your employees will help reduce the stress and anxiety that they may be currently experiencing and by carrying out a survey of the workforce to understand their concerns and their personal preferences when it comes down to preferred place of work. Some organisations have already started to look at their business models and have recognised that in some job roles their employees are a lot happier working from home and have more flexibility when looking after family and no longer have to worry about the additional commute times and travel costs associated with travelling to and from work.
Employers have acknowledged this has resulted in a significant increase in productivity, a reduction in sick absences and workplace incidents and a reduction in overall running costs associated with the traditional office environment or workplace.
COVID-19 has brought with it many challenges and had a dramatic impact on many organisations not only from a financial perspective but also how they manage their employees and the seismic shift from work to home for many individuals. Working from home is not an excuse for employers to neglect their responsibilities and duty of care to their employees.
Health, safety and wellbeing are probably more important in the current pandemic than they have ever been, and if employers are seen to be failing to carryout suitable and sufficient risk assessments and fail to consult with their employees on any subsequent changes. If employees believe that something is not compliant with health and safety law and is likely to cause you harm then raise it with the employer, your safety rep, trade union or report it via the HSE online which will allow you to remain anonymous if you prefer. So far throughout the current pandemic the HSE has issued no enforcement notices but hopefully as the R values continues to fall and as workplaces begin to reopen then we may hopefully see them being more visible in the workplace.
For those individuals who are looking for more guidance on what their employers should be doing to ensure their workplaces are COVID-19 safe then there is lots of useful information available and I would recommend that you visit the TUC’s website and download a copy of their COVID-19 Guidance to Unions which has links to further resources. These are unprecedented times and I believe that many of us have felt stressed about leaving our homes or working throughout the pandemic, worried about our families, our jobs and just the thought of catching the virus.
The pandemic is having a real impact on our mental health and if you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with mental health or are living with someone who is suffering with mental health, then please speak to someone and get support from your GP or from one of the many charities like MIND that can offer you support, but most of all remember you don’t have to suffer in silence.
Look after yourselves and stay safe.