Over the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, health and safety struggled to make headline news unless a serious incident occurred, such as the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire. However, COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill – all due to the risks to our health. It catapulted health, safety, and wellbeing to the top of business agendas. The focus has rightly been on the tragic loss of thousands of lives, but we should not overlook the profound impact the pandemic has had on workplace culture surrounding health and safety. Most businesses have had to remodel their approach to health and safety. However, many high-risk industries, such as the construction sector, continued to operate as normal. This article explores how businesses can adopt effective health and safety measures as part of a wider strategy to ensure they rebound from the pandemic with success in 2021.
The cost of getting it wrong
A failure to comply with health and safety legislation can have a huge financial impact on a business. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has the power to take robust enforcement action by issuing enforcement notices. The HSE also has the power to prosecute businesses. Successful prosecutions have recently resulted in significant fines for businesses. In addition, employees can bring civil claims for any injuries suffered following a failure to successfully manage health and safety.
At a time when turnover for many businesses has taken a dip, the cost for failure to manage health and safety can have a crippling impact. Compliance will outweigh the benefit of any cost saving exercises.
The pandemic also highlighted that employees are increasingly willing to raise concerns in respect of their health and safety. An article published by Care Home Professional states that “whistleblowing by care home staff has increased by 66% during the coronavirus pandemic”. This tells us that the likelihood of staff raising health and safety concerns in respect of COVID-19 is elevated due to increased public awareness concerning the disease.
The HSE takes whistleblowing very seriously and has a dedicated webpage for staff to file reports about their employer’s health and safety practices. A recent example of whistleblowing was witnessed in the Leicester textiles industry. The HSE said it carried out 51 visits to businesses between 1 May and 20 July 2020, which led to nine enforcement notices being issued, three of which were concerned with COVID-19 control measures.
- Ensure your health and safety policies and procedures have been updated.
- Consider COVID-19 risk assessments.
- Inform staff of any changes in policies and procedures.
- Provide refresher training to those who have been absent from work.
A recent example of how health and safety can bring about positive change was demonstrated by an ISS Facility Services UK HSEQ Manager, Joel Crompton, who was applauded for his heroic efforts in setting up the NHS Nightingale Hospital London. You can read more about Joel’s efforts here. Joel was responsible for ensuring all risk assessments, method statements and COSHH assessments were written, approved, delivered, and signed by all 600 facilities employees within the nine day mobilisation period. Joel also spoke with local hoteliers to explain the control measures in place which was the catalyst for hotels providing support. It is precisely this kind of action that helps keep employees safe.
Failure to appropriately manage health and safety can also result in significant reputational damage. COVID-19 stories have dominated the news. Businesses who failed to manage the pandemic have been criticised. Criticism has ranged from sweat shop factories in Leicester through to warehouses not ensuring social distancing. In some cases, reputational damage may result in significant loss of business. However, successfully managing health and safety may enhance reputation and give a business an advantage over its competitors.
A UK aerospace company was recently praised by Cumbria’s public health boss after it acted swiftly following confirmation of a positive test for COVID-19 in their shipyard. The company had embarked on testing workers on a mass scale.
The swift action comprised of notifying local public health officials of a positive case and contact tracing. This was noticed by the local press and the company was rightly praised for its efforts to keep staff and the local community safe.
Lockdowns no.2 and no.3 have undoubtably had an impact on businesses. The hospitality and leisure sectors have been hardest hit and many other businesses are having to extend the measures implemented earlier in the year in order to operate safely. Most of the COVID-19 safety measures stem from sector specific Government guidelines. In essence, these are:
- assessing risk
- social distancing
- working from home where possible
- mandatory face masks for certain businesses
Whilst Government guidelines allow certain businesses to safely operate during the pandemic, the arrival of 2 vaccines is an indication that a return to normality is likely to take place at some point soon. Every business will appreciate the importance of planning ahead. We cannot stress enough the importance of incorporating health and safety within these plans and have therefore highlighted some considerations (in addition to the key considerations above) – most of which will allow businesses to rebound and rebuild towards life beyond the pandemic.
Employers are under a legal obligation to consult with employees, or their representatives, on health and safety matters. The consultation process does not need to be cumbersome. In practice, it is for the employer to decide how consultations should take place. This can be done through any of the following methods:
- trade union discussions
- workplace forum discussions
- workplace surveys
- individual employee consultations
Consulting with employees establishes two-way communication, building upon the employer and employee relationship. Furthermore, consulting with employees will help with employees buying into the approach adopted and makes it more likely that people will follow the rules.
Managing people’s mental health has been a challenge exacerbated by the pandemic for businesses. Remote working and restrictions on liberty are some of the specific factors that have been cited as the causes of mental health problems. Under UK law, employers have a “duty of care” to protect the health, safety and welfare (including mental health) of all employees while at work. The definition of “whilst at work” includes working remotely.
In order to rebound successfully, businesses should ensure the mental health of employees is looked after. Stress is often referred to as the cause of mental health problems. The HSE’s Management Standards identify six key areas (or “risk factors”) that can cause work-related stress. These are:
- the demands of your job;
- your control over your work;
- the support you receive from managers and colleagues;
- your relationships at work;
- your role in the organisation; and
- change and how it’s managed.
The HSE state “an employer needs to gain a detailed understanding of what these risk factors look like where you work, identify which areas may be presenting problems, and work with employees and their representatives to take action to reduce these problems.”
Businesses who successfully manage employee wellbeing will likely benefit from a healthier workforce, which may reduce absenteeism; a more productive workforce, which may reduce the number of errors; and a more tolerant workforce, which may reduce the number of people choosing to leave. All these measures will enable businesses to retain their most talented employees – a crucial element to ensuring continued growth beyond the pandemic.
Review internal H&S procedures
One of the major changes brought about by the pandemic is the shift to remote working. It is for each business to decide whether it intends to allow its staff to permanently work from home. However, for those businesses who wish to bring staff back as soon as the pandemic ends, they should consider reviewing their internal health and safety policies and procedures.
It is important that staff are made comfortable with returning to work either before or after the pandemic ends. Reviewing policies and procedures and communicating any changes to the workforce will instil confidence in employees embracing the return to offices and other places of work once life returns to normal.
It is recognised that the world will no longer be the same. New habits and new working practices have become embedded into our lives over the last 12 months. It is to be determined exactly how many of these practices will become a permanent feature. However, considering the above, businesses should ensure health and safety is a key part of rebounding and remodelling from the impact of the pandemic.
The information held in this PDF / on this webpage is for general purposes and guidance only and does not purport to constitute legal or professional advice.