The government and many business leaders are talking about the need to get the economy back to work. Getting people back to work is a given. However getting people back to a shared workplace is not necessarily the best thing to do.

Assuming the advice coming from Her Majesty’s Government and scientists is apolitical and therefore the best we can hope for, it is reasonable to accept that as a society we will have to maintain social distancing in most aspects of our lives for several months at the very least.

Until two or three months ago, many thousands of people worked in close proximity to each other in offices, shops and factories, and certainly in the larger conurbations, were crammed like sardines into buses, trains, escalators and lifts etc. To continue this situation is obviously untenable with our current social distancing requirements. Therefore the question has to be asked how can we have our staff return to work and still maintain their safety.

We will look at several scenarios and attempts to give workable advice. When considering all the scenarios there are two distinct areas of concern: the physical health of the staff if they are potentially exposed to COVID 19 , and their mental health if they are not either allowed to work or do not feel safe to travel to i.e. commute, or be actually at work and surrounded by other people. This article is primarily concerned with the physical aspects. The mental health issues will be dealt with in a further report.

In all scenarios the first requirement is that all staff complete a health declaration every day to confirm that they have not knowingly been in contact with an infected person, they do not have a high temperature or an unexpected cough. If any member of staff is suddenly unwell with any of the COVID 19 symptoms he/she is to be refused entry to the workplace and all staff should be treated as potentially infected.

 

Download our free daily health declaration for staff returning to work form here.

 

1. Web design company with an office in a local business hub.

Employs 10 staff within the business, all the staff use the shared facilities of the hub which in turn are used by upward of a hundred people. Inside the office there are two options.

Each desk can be separated by Perspex shielding to, in effect, create cubicles. This will allow physical separation by means of the shielding but will still allow a degree of interpersonal connection. It is worth noting that this form of isolation may not be conducive for team working.

The second option is that only half the staff are permitted in the office at any one time, and no hot desking/sharing of IT equipment is permitted. If this option is chosen it is suggested that 50% work in the office and the other 50% work at home one week, and then the roles are reversed. Videoconferencing may be used to have team meetings at any time. We have heard of several remote working staff members who have a constant video link (Zoom) between them, to make them feel as if someone is in the room with them.

The kitchen/breakout rooms and toilets will need to be cleaned/disinfected regularly. As the premises managers, this service should be provided by the hub and the cost will probably be borne by all tenants. The hub will need to arrange staggered times for use in the kitchen/breakout rooms in order to avoid any build up of tenants and their guests in the common/shared areas.

 

2. Company with offices in large town or city.

May employ 30 to 40 or more people in open plan offices in a shared multi-storey block. The kitchen and rest area will be within the office domain and will be only used by the company. Access to the floor will either be via stairwell or more often a shared lift. The controls are the same as with the business hub. Inside the office there are two options. Each desk can be separated by Perspex shielding to in effect create cubicles. This will allow physical separation by means of the shielding but will still allow a degree of interpersonal connection.

The second option is that only half the staff are permitted in the office at any one time, and no hot desking/sharing IT equipment is permitted. If this option is chosen it is suggested that 50% work in the office and the other 50% work at home one week, and then the roles are reversed. Videoconferencing may be used to have team meetings at any time.

Social gatherings within the office/around desks will have to be discouraged or banned. Meeting rooms should not be used unless the distancing can be achieved. The kitchen/rest area will need to be cleaned/disinfected regularly. This will need to be specifically organised probably by the office manager, and carried out by either a member of staff or a cleaner. It is probably unrealistic to have a cleaner on how the whole time, so a member of staff or several members of staff will need to be delegated the task.

This opens up the question of whether they are putting themselves at risk…This should be manageable by use of suitable PPE.

The issue of sharing a lift with an unknown number of people raises far more concerns. It is possible though probably not practical to maintain social distancing within a restricted space such as a lift. It is probable therefore, that people will choose to break the distancing recommendations and cram into a lift rather than wait or walk up possibly many flights of stairs. This immediately negates any social distancing that may happen in the office.

There is also the obvious concern about using public transport. It is not possible to maintain social distancing at peak times on any mass transit system. It has been suggested that the Government may attempt to limit the number of passengers in a carriage or bus by 90%. Such a reduction will certainly allow the 2m social distancing, but is it really feasible to then increase the number of buses to allow for running them half empty – and one cannot simply increase the number of train services.

 

3. Newbuild or large refurbishment on a commercial building site.

It is a relatively simple task to attempts to instruct builders to maintain social distancing during their normal working practices. This may not always be feasible as some trades may find it impossible to maintain the distance through the practical needs of their work, and so face masks may be necessary. However it is questionable whether it is practicable to wear a mask to FFP2 or 3 while carrying out a physically strenuous task. Remember PPE is not there to create a problem.

Travelling to site. Unless site staff are from the same household they should travel in separate vehicles. One the down side, this has an environmental impact as well as the need for more site parking.

A typical scaffold is less than 1.2m wide, it is therefore not possible for two site workers to pass without infringing the 2m social distancing measure. This is not a major issue, as it is likely to be outside and both operatives should be able to face away from each other.

The issue with building sites is that of the rest and welfare areas, which are not designed for any form of distancing. Social distancing may be factored in this if use of the rest areas is staggered to reduce the number of men using them at any one time. Given the nature of the construction industry, this is probably not practical.

The cleaning of the kitchen/rest area is the same as offices. The kitchen/rest rooms will need to be cleaned/disinfected regularly. This will need to be specifically organised probably by the site manager, and carried out by either a member of staff or a cleaner. It is probably unrealistic to have a cleaner on how the whole time, so a member of staff or several members of staff will need to be delegated the task. This opens up the question of whether they are putting themselves at risk… This should be manageable by use of suitable PPE.

 

4. Building work/insurance repairs to a typical domestic property.

This is a different area of work altogether. The working area tends to be smaller which by implication will push the trades into closer proximity. There is also the matter of the householders – will they be in the vicinity. Will the builders use the customer’s kitchen and toilet? The same issues with face masks apply to this sector of the workplace as the larger sites, but here it is unlikely there will be anyone to ‘police’ or enforce the wearing of PPE – and ‘small builders’ are invincible…

 

5. Shops or other workplaces where there is likely to be contact with the public.

The supermarkets who have been trading throughout the pandemic, and now the DIY warehouses are operating systems of number control – one customer comes out = one customer is allowed in. This is then combined with one way systems within the store and protective screens at the tills. It is likely that all shops – indeed any business that needs to take payment at the point of sale will need to operate in a similar manner. Small village shops/sub-post offices will probably find this the hardest to enforce, and will need to rely on the goodwill of their customers to comply, although clear signage will be paramount. Car dealerships will be problematic as any test drives will need to be carried out with the purchaser and the salesman both wearing masks. If the buyer drives the car it is suggested he is given disposable gloves to wear – the logistics of disinfecting a car after every test drive is nonsensical.

Anywhere used as a waiting room, whether at the GP surgery or MOT garage will need to be adapted to prevent overcrowding.
Other workplaces may include car maintenance workshops. The mechanics/fitters should be able to work within their own space most of the time. If team handling is required, masks should be worn. Where possible, tools or equipment should not be shared. The workshop manager should appoint someone to clean the handles etc, or simply instruct users to clean up after themselves (this would need to be monitored by the management in case people ‘forgot’…)

 

Summary

Because the information coming from the Government via their scientists is changing rapidly, this information is subject to change. It has been written using the current advice from the Government combined with the knowledge and experience of the author – a health & safety consultant. He has used his experience of assessing risk across a variety of industry sectors and creating workable systems of working.

If you would like further information or help, please contact us. You’re welcome to download our free daily health check form to use for your staff when they return to work.