Screen at a supermarket checkout

COVID-19 risks ‘need balancing against other H&S concerns’

HSE warns businesses against creating new workplace hazards.
21 May 2020 , Sarah Campbell

Changes to business practices as a result of COVID-19 must not be at the expense of regular health and safety considerations, the head of the HSE’s Local Authority and Safety Unit said.

Alexander Tsavalos, speaking as a panellist in CIEH’s COVID-19 health and safety webinar (available here from 22 May), pointed out that in the case of a fire drill, for example, it’s important that infection-control measures such as blocking entrances and introducing one-way systems don’t add to the fire risk.

“If you’ve made changes, make sure the fire procedures you had before COVID-19 are still going to work now,” he said. “There’s the potential that in trying to deal with the COVID-19 risk you might inadvertently create another risk in the workplace.”

He added that businesses don’t need a special COVID-19 risk assessment, but that the risk around re-opening should be worked into their existing risk management systems. He also said that HSE is working on a microsite full of guidance for the ‘back-to-work phase’.

In response to a question about whether physical measures such as screens were more about customer expectation or ‘window dressing’ than actually preventing transmission, he said that businesses that have obvious and visible COVID-19 controls in place will encourage the public to also take infection precautions. “We know that if people see that other people are taking things seriously they are more likely to follow rules themselves. There’s an element of being seen to be doing these things – but it’s actually doing the measures that will make the difference,” he said, adding that physical barriers are part of a hierarchy of controls that businesses will need to consider.

He also talked about the ‘complicated relationship’ between public health measures and workplace responsibilities, in response to a question about what employees should do if they feel their employers are putting them at unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Obviously the first option is raise it with your employer and your safety representative, especially if you think this is putting you in danger in any way,” he said. “The complicated relationship between social distancing measures and Health and Safety at Work is that the COVID crisis is a public health crisis, so public health takes the lead there. However, the risk in work is one of the risks that employers need to consider, therefore HSAW does apply. So talk to you employer, go via your safety rep. If you’re not getting any joy there then please go to whoever your health and safety enforcer is.

He added that the HSE’s helpline – which has been expanded with some of the £14 million that the government has given the organisation – is there “if you’ve got questions about COVID issues”.

“But if it’s a specific thing about enforcement in your workplace and you’re enforced by your local authority (LA), you’ll need to talk to your LA,” he said. “I appreciate that makes it complicated for some people, but if you start with the HSE call centre […] they will steer you to whatever guidance is available and they’ll say you need to talk to your LA if it’s something more specific about your site.”

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