Managing COVID-19 risks in the workplace


Who should be working from home, and what should employers be doing to minimise transmission risk in the workplace?

The COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic has severely affected working practices through 2020. While the furlough scheme is wrapping up at the end of this month, it is clear that the national situation is still evolving – and so, therefore, is the official guidance on workplace safety. 

This article focuses mainly on office-based work, but many of the principles transfer to other work environments.

Who should work from home?

Government advice currently states that office workers who “can work effectively from home” should do so.

This is a recent turnaround in official advice. Previously, the Government had started to encourage people to go back to work. 

The updated advice comes as a result of increased COVID-19 cases in the UK.

Who should come back to work?

Those who cannot work effectively from home should come back to the office if it is following COVID-19 secure guidelines. The Government says that following these guidelines can substantially reduce the risk of transmission.

Planning a return to the workplace.

Employers and employees should communicate openly about changes in plans – whether that is returning to the office or returning to working from home. Working out schedules and rotas to minimise social mixing is a good way to ease anxiety and risk. 

For employers, consulting with health and safety representatives, supervisors, trade union representatives and other employee representatives is also beneficial. 

Employers should be flexible, where possible and, likewise, workers should try to be ready to return at short notice.

COVID-19 secure guidelines: How to mitigate risk in the workplaceSocial distancingThis is a concept most of us are now familiar with: staying at least 1 metre – 2 metres, where possible – from other people to minimise risk. 
In the workplace, there are many ways to help ensure social distancing between employees. They include: 

  • Planning and clearly marking a one-way system for foot traffic (where safe to do so), especially at entry and exit points
  • Asking employees not to use the kitchen at the same time 
  • Asking employees not to use lifts at the same time, where possible
  • Spacing desks further apart 
  • Staggering arrival and departure times (e.g. having one group work 08:30-16:30 and another work 09:00-17:00)
  • Staggering break times

Mitigating actions
Where 2-metre distancing is not possible, Government guidelines suggest 1-metre distancing with “mitigating actions”. These include:

  • Using screens or barriers to separate people
  • Minimising face-to-face working, instead arranging people back-to-back or side-by-side 
  • Keeping activities between employees (such as meetings) as short as possible
  • Implementing a fixed team or partnering system, where employees work with the same small group, reducing the amount of people they have contact with 
  • Increasing cleaning of surfaces 
  • Introducing hand-washing or sanitising points
  • Reducing use of shared touch surfaces such as keypads and door handles 

Read the full, up-to-date Government advice on managing COVID-19 risk here.

Protecting vulnerable people in the workplacePeople classed as “clinically vulnerable” no longer need to shield. That means they are not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for Government-advised shielding. 
However, if they are given a letter by their doctor saying that they are not fit to work, this should be respected and worked with.

However, they should still take even stricter measures than other employees to reduce risk of catching COVID-19.

If a vulnerable person can work from home, they should do so.

If their job role does not support this, there are several options to consider:

  • Temporary or permanent change of role
  • Change in work patterns (so they can come into the workplace at times when it is not as busy)
  • Extra safety precautions in the workplace, such as a separate office

Could an employer be accused of unfair treatment?Possibly, if a worker is protected by law on the grounds of age, a health condition that is legally considered a disability, or pregnancy. 
Employers could be open to claims of unlawful discrimination if they unreasonably discipline protected workers for not coming into the work; or if they place unreasonable pressure for the worker to attend.

ConclusionKeep lines of communication open, including judgement-free conversations about mental health. Concern and anxiety over returning to the workplace is to be expected but taking all reasonable steps to manage risk – and making sure everyone knows about them – will help.  
Employers and employees should, ultimately, have the same goal in mind: to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission whilst maintaining a functioning business. As we learn more about the Coronavirus and get used to tactics like social distancing and increased handwashing, this should get easier.

More information

Contact our employment team if you have any queries related to this article. Please fill in the contact form on this page or email us at or contact us on 01708 229444 (Upminster Office), 01277 211755 (Brentwood Office) or 01708 511000 (Hornchurch Office)

This article was written by Alex Pearce, Senior Associate in the Employment Team at Pinney Talfourd LLP Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as of October 2020.


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