There have been 53 updates to the Government’s health and safety guidance on making workplaces “COVID-secure” since May 2020.
However, the guidance, nor any guidance from the Health and Safety Executive, provides information on whether additional measures should be taken to protect employees from the new variant which is reported to be up to 70% more transmissible and responsible for the majority of new cases.
This month, Unison has urged employers to review their health and safety measures due to the new variant, and to review risk assessments in light of the variant being more infectious.
Health and safety legislation is designed to ensure businesses minimise risk of injury and illness amongst their workforce. Failure to comply can cause harm amongst staff but can also result in financial consequences for the employer including fines, increased insurance premiums and potential damages payments to injured parties.
HSE announced in November 2020 that it was conducting spot checks to ensure businesses are COVID-secure. This is benchmarked against existing government guidance which, currently, does not include measures relating to the risks associated with the new variant.
Despite this, employers have a duty to ensure that risk assessments are kept relevant and up to date. With this in mind, are risk assessments fit for purpose if the risks associated with the new variant have not been considered? The answer is unclear.
Unison has called for HSE to improve its guidance in this regard and work with relevant public bodies to improve this guidance cross all sectors and we are closely monitoring both HSE and the Government websites for updates.
In the meantime, we advise employers to ensure they are compliant with existing HSE and government guidance for their sector. There is nothing to prevent employers from beginning to assess the risks associated with the new variant in the absence of specific guidance currently, especially if employees have raised concerns within the business. It will stand employers in good stead to reassure employees that this new risk is being considered.
Employers should also remember their duty to ensure employees health and safety extends to employees’ mental health. Regular communication with employees and providing opportunities to discuss mental health at work will promote this. HSE specifically draws attention to the risks associated with lone working which may be relevant if you have some or all of your workforce working at home.