Tristan Meears-White: Back to work?

by | Apr 19, 2020 | Blog

Is the COVID-19 curve flattening? Professor Angela McLean, the UK’s Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor has suggested that it is – that is to say that the rates of increase are falling and the numbers of new cases per day are not increasing.

Could this be the beginning of the beginning of an “exit”? Hard to say as the UK Government seems likely to extend social distancing/lockdown for another three weeks; however Next announced today that they have implemented additional safety measures and will be resuming online sales in a limited range of categories and we are seeing restrictions beginning to ease around parts of Europe. So maybe…

Employers and employees around the UK are pretty desperate to get back to work as soon as possible. A picture of how that might unfold is starting to emerge from China — and it’s not straightforward.

Businesses have long relied on the HSE’s five-tier “hierarchy of controls” to manage workplace risks to employees. So, it is reasonable to assume that this framework will also be the basis of organisations’ plans to get back to work.

In China, organisations have already begun following the hierarchy to restart production but the process seems to have been expensive and slow, as it is likely to be in the UK.

Why?

Put very simply, it’s because many of the standard tools for managing workplace safety are not effective against a risk as unusual as coronavirus.

The problem is that COVID-19 is not a risk that at present can be “eliminated” or “substituted” so we are into engineering controls – isolating people from the hazard (perspex “sneeze-screens” in supermarkets); then administrative controls – changing the way people work (e.g. A and B shift patterns with fewer workers in premises at any one time) before we hit on PPE – which is usually seen as the least effective of the risk controls. In practice, the lack of effect from tiers one to four has led businesses to this “last resort” as a primary port of call.

The truth is that handing facemasks and disposable gloves out and nagging employees to wash their hands are not the most “certain” methods for ensuring employee safety. But these are largely the methods that Chinese companies have been relying on as they have restarted production — and from where I sit, I don’t see UK businesses having many better options.

The UK Government and companies face some difficult decisions in the coming weeks – they can either reopen business with layers of additional hygiene controls, social distancing and PPE requirements or return to work with fewer controls and accept the obvious risk of second-wave infections. I doubt many UK workers will go for option 2 and nor should their employers – there could be no clearer breach of statutory duties.

Noone can argue that there is any silver bullet hanging about which will stop the virus spreading but equally, the global economy cannot sustain a lockdown continuing for a year or so until a vaccine is developed — ultimately therefore, this will be a public policy led decision and will necessarily involve us all accepting a level of risk which we might not be wholly comfortable with. The lesser of evils or the pre-cursor to a bigger second wave?

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This blog was written by Tristan Meears-White, Notify’s resident Subject Matter Expert. Tris is a Health and Safety lawyer hailed as a “key individual” by Chambers UK and a “first-class health and safety lawyer” by Legal 500 2018/2019. More about Tris here.