With mounting economic pressures and the return to the tier system in the UK, businesses are facing a big decision on whether or not to allow employees to go back to the workplace in 2021. Others may have stayed open through lockdown depending on the type of business and whether they are classified as ‘essential’.
As an employer, you have a duty of care to your staff and must take active measures to ensure their health and safety in the work environment. Now, this duty of care also includes taking reasonable steps to protect your workers and others from coronavirus.
COVID-19 needs to be managed through a hierarchy of control with various measures in place. These measures include social distancing, high standards of hand hygiene, increased surface cleaning and wearing face masks where appropriate.
Ensuring social distancing
Social distancing should form part of your business’ risk assessment to make your workplace COVID-secure. Where it is not possible to keep two metres apart, you should also consider additional control measures.
The government has provided extensive guidance on how to work safely during coronavirus and explained the control measures that different types of business should consider. However, some of the common steps that apply to many workplaces include using floor markings to maintain social distancing and reviewing workstation layouts to ensure people work side-by-side rather than face-to-face. Staggering arrival and departure times or introducing a one-way flow at entry and exit points is also a good idea to reduce congestion.
As an employer, you must still ensure all workers have somewhere to rest and eat. To allow staff to do this safely, consider extending break times to limit the numbers of people using the facilities and creating additional break areas where required.
Employers also have a legal duty to provide adequate toilet facilities that are easy and safe to access. To protect people when using these facilities, you may need to take some facilities out of use where they are less than two metres apart. Putting markings on the floor and creating a ‘one in, one out’ system can also help to maintain social distancing.
Stepping up cleaning efforts
Frequent handwashing and keeping the workplace clean are also crucial to making your business COVID-secure.
When completing your COVID-19 risk assessment, you should consider if you need to provide additional handwashing facilities (with running water, soap and paper towels or hand dryers) so that people can wash their hands often. If this is not possible, you may need to provide hand sanitiser stations instead in frequently used areas such as entry and exit points, break rooms and common areas.
You may also need to increase how often and how thoroughly the workplace is cleaned. To enable frequent cleaning, surfaces should be kept as clear as possible. It is also important to identify frequently touched surfaces — such as door handles, windows, desks, computer keyboards and printers — which need more regular cleaning than usual. If the equipment is shared, it should also be cleaned and disinfected after each use.
Typical workplace cleaning products should be effective; however, it is worth checking that the disinfectants used kill viruses as well as bacteria. In large workspaces, you may also want to consider using fog, mist, vapour or UV treatments to disinfect the premises and help control the spread of coronavirus.
Supplying face masks
If you provide staff with face masks, you have a duty of care to ensure they are suitable and sufficient. As such, it is vital that you choose the right mask.
Most face coverings are only rated to protect others but not the wearer. Even the surgical IIR-certified disposable masks, which promise 98% efficiency, can only base this claim on exhaled particles, not inhaled ones. These disposable masks also need to be replaced frequently (every four hours at a minimum) — making them an unsustainable solution.
Although better for the environment, reusable cloth masks also offer very little protection to the user, particularly if they are not washed frequently. But if you are supplying masks in a work environment, this presents several problems. Whose responsibility is it to wash the masks? Do you need to provide multiple masks to accommodate cleaning? And how can you guarantee they have been cleaned to a satisfactory standard?
Finding the best solution
Medical silicone masks are made from a permanently antibacterial material that prevents bad odours caused by sweating, as well as the mask becoming infected by the user touching it with their hands. Because the medical silicone moulds to the shape of the user’s face over time, it also offers increased comfort and a more effective seal to protect the user. These types of masks can also be sterilised in just five minutes using boiling water or a microwave — both of which are readily available in most workplaces — or an oven.
When combined with FFP2-rated filters, these masks can provide a level of protection comparable to the American N95 (95%) filter standard. These filters are also a more financially viable solution (particularly for small business owners) compared to FFP2 respirator masks, which are also certified to protect both the user and the wearer — but at three to four times the price of an average IIR disposable mask!