Many businesses are now putting plans in place for returning to physical offices. However, just because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel does not mean that the risk of coronavirus should not be mitigated against. Employers must ensure they follow the mandatory government and Public Health requirements. But they should also go over and above their employer obligations to ensure workplace safety and avoid potential liability claims.
In all health and safety cases, the burden falls on the employer to demonstrate what measures have been put in place to protect its workforce as far as is reasonably practicable. This means businesses must be able to provide evidence on the measures they’ve taken to prevent the risk of Covid-19.
The most effective way to manage risk is to undertake a Covid-19 risk assessment. This will help you to identify areas of risk and put control measures in place.
Be aware that minimising some risks may, in fact, increase others. For example, lone working may ensure social distancing and thus reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread. But it also means less-experienced employees may be more at risk of injury as they aren’t being supervised by management.
Risk assessments should also look at the individual circumstances of employees. Consider how employees get to work, whether they’re high or moderate risk, whether mental health conditions could impact your employee returning to work and whether the employee or a member of their household is suffering from Covid-19 symptoms.
It’s perhaps obvious that businesses must continue to ensure social distancing within the workplace, with hand sanitising stations available throughout the building or site. But there are other measures to consider, too, such as having a stock of PPE available to staff members who require it or developing an online questionnaire to ensure visitors are aware of your business’s new measures.
Managing returning to work effectively
Change in routine can be stressful for individuals. You must monitor, identify and minimise stress within your workforce to ensure open dialogue is kept with employees thus reducing the likelihood or a claim being made.
Make sure all staff know what measures are being put in place to ensure workplace safety. They must also know their own personal obligation (such as following advised hygiene routines or avoiding using shared equipment). Encourage staff to speak openly about their concerns or anxieties, and take steps to support your team where possible. By maintaining an open line of communication, you’re more easily able to predict potential problems and put measures in place to prevent them.
Many businesses are considering introducing more flexible working routines. Particularly during this period of difficult transition, promote flexibility and give employees the opportunity to voice their concerns. Whether employees continue working from home or begin to return to the office, ensure all staff are supervised and this supervision recorded. This includes clearly communicating objectives, training needs and day-to-day tasks/workloads.
Failure to support staff and listen to their concerns could create a culture of unmotivated, disgruntled employees who will be potentially more likely to make a claim against you. For example, employees who are left with a significant increase in their own workload or have not been adequately supported may decide to make a claim for psychological injury. You must be able to exhibit how your business has accounted for any change in workload or potential increase in employee stress.
What claims are likely?
Perhaps the most obvious claim will be for Covid-19 infection itself. If an employee claims they have contracted the disease at work, you must provide evidence that you have taken all reasonable steps to mitigate against risk and ensure the safety of your employees. This includes practical considerations such as keeping doors open, introducing a one-way system, devising a social distancing plan, shutting down communal areas and ensuring adequate signage and effective warnings are placed around the building.
There’s also likely to be an increase in claims from those working from home. You will need to prove you have considered potential risks that may arise from home working. Again, the best way to do this is to ensure all home workers have completed a risk assessment. If you are considering making remote working a long-term option for employees, these risk assessments will need to be regularly evaluated and updated. This will minimise the chances of a successful claim being made against you for musculoskeletal injury, or stress-related issues.
Employers may also receive claims for vicarious liability for potential acts of negligence made by employees. For example, if an employee with coronavirus continues to serve customers then a business could be deemed vicariously liable as the virus has been spread to others outside of the business. You must ensure all employees have been given training, have access to workplace guidelines and understand their personal responsibilities in order to defend these claims effectively. Ultimately it’s your responsibility to ensure you have done your due diligence in communicating safety expectations effectively.
The best way to defend the above claims is to make sure you can demonstrate adequate risk management. You must be able to provide evidence that you have taken all reasonably practicable steps to ensure your workforce is safe under your employment. Document all evidence of risk assessments, Health and Safety discussions and any other safeguards you’ve put in place to ensure safety within the workplace.
Of course, putting adequate risk management procedures in place will help to keep employees, customers and contractors safe. It will also help you more effectively defend a claim should an incident or illness occur.
Submitted by Romero Insurance