Keeping your distance at work
Published: 26 Mar 2020

In light of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the UK Government has announced important measures to protect the public and reduce pressure on the NHS.

Stay and work from home where you can

People have been urged to maintain social distancing and stay at home, except for in very limited circumstances.

These include:

  • shopping for necessities, food and medicine, as infrequently as possible; 
  • to seek medical help, or provide care to a vulnerable person;
  • one form of daily exercise - whilst maintaining social distancing; and
  • travel to and from work, but only where work can not be carried out from home.

There are many workers who are designated as key workers due to the importance of their roles in this pandemic. These include NHS and health and social care workers, goods delivery service workers, those working in the supply, sale and distribution of food and medicines/medical supplies, energy supply workers and employees providing childcare or learning support for key workers children, to name but a few.

Whilst the Government ordered the closing of certain businesses and venues, including:

  • pubs, bars and nightclubs;
  • cinemas and theatres;
  • libraries, community centres and youth centres;
  • indoor and outdoor leisure facilities,

other business have not been required to close, and are able to carry on their operations.

For some, like the staff here at Cedrec, this means home-working. Where possible, employers should take steps to facilitate working from home, providing suitable IT and equipment to enable employees to do this. This is important to do because it enables employees to stay at home and maintain social distancing which is meant to limit the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Social distancing crucial

However, not every worker is in the fortunate position to be able to carry out work from home. It is hugely important that where this is the case that measures are implemented and adhered to in order to protect the workforce and members of the public that they could come into contact with or be affected by their activities.

For weeks now we have all been reminded about the importance of proper hand washing ('Happy Birthday to you...') and staying at home and self-isolating if you experience any symptoms. But now we must take measures that go beyond this to ensure social distancing. 

Social distancing ensures we maintain at least a two metre distance from others. This is something many food stores are trying to facilitate now with markers on shop floor queuing areas, and some supermarkets even providing screens for checkout staff who can't be protected by a two metre distance between customers.

Employer's duty of care more important than ever

However in the last few days many have questioned whether more businesses should be ordered to suspend their work operations as they argue they aren't vital to assisting in managing the pandemic, and some of the work activities in these sectors make it difficult to allow for that two metre social distancing gap.

The construction industry in particular has come under scrutiny as some argue that unless the work is involved in the building or maintenance of hospitals of key infrastructure of importance in the COVID-19 effort then sites should be closed to help protect workers and their families.

Many pictures have surfaced since latest Government announcements showing workers on construction sites not adhering to the two metre social distance rule. Unfortunately they are not alone, with police having to disperse public gatherings of more than two people across the country as many have taken to local parks in the bid to banish isolation boredom and make the most of the good weather sweeping the country.

The Government has issued guidance to both the public and business on these new measures, which is continually updated, and local authorities and police will enforce these rules. But at work it is the employers responsibility to ensure not only the safety of their employees, but also to any contractors working on site and any members of the public who may be affected by their work. It is therefore vital for employers to adopt measures to ensure they enforce two metre social distancing at work wherever possible.

Of course there will always be workplaces where this is not possible all the time, for example, front line NHS staff, however proper precautions and PPE must be adopted to minimise the risk.

For businesses that don't fall under the category of a key worker, there should be no excuse for not implementing measures wherever possible. If this means work processes have to be changed and new risk assessments carried out, more or different equipment used to carry out a task or suspending non-essential tasks then this should be considered properly by the employer.

The employer's duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is arguably more important in this current crisis than it ever has been before, not only to ensure the health and safety of their employees directly, but also because of the potential impact it can have on their families and loved ones.

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