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The importance of risk assessments in planning a safe return to the workplace

Drawing of home and the office taken from iHASCO's returning to work (during & after) Covid-19 online training course.

With many organisations starting to look at getting employees back to the workplace, it is vital that employers can confidently manage and reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19. Employees may be anxious, so a COVID-19 risk assessment plays a huge role in reassuring them about their safety and wellbeing at work.

Planning is important in all aspects of business, and it is no different when it comes to an organisation looking ahead and understanding how they may operate after the COVID-19 lockdown. The risk assessment should be seen as part of that plan to get employees back to work safely and help them feel positive about their return.

Who is responsible for conducting a risk assessment?

Occupational Safety and Health professionals will be very familiar with risk assessments and their purpose, especially in areas such as fire safety, manual handling, working with display screen equipment, control of hazardous substances and a whole range of further topics to ensure the safety of all employees at work. Businesses without a dedicated OSH manager may have an appointed, competent person to ensure health and safety requirements are being met. Either way, a COVID-19 risk assessment is going to be vital to ensure a safe return to the workplace and whoever is usually responsible for health and safety is best placed to do this, with the support of managers/directors of the business. Involving employees and consulting with them will also help ensure your risk assessment is realistic and incorporates all the known risks.

An example Covid-19 risk assessment taken from iHASCO's returning to work (during & after Covid-19) after Covid-19 online training course
An example Covid-19 risk assessment taken from iHASCO's returning to work (during & after Covid-19) online training course

Employer Guidance

Every industry has been affected by the Coronavirus outbreak, which has resulted in significant change to business operations. Even though the vaccination programme is well underway, there is still not enough evidence to suggest it prevents the spread of the virus, therefore it is essential for workplaces to learn to manage the risk of infection and continue to remain cautious. Looking at who is at risk, from employees to customers, and the level of possible exposure will help you determine suitable control methods. Therefore the risk assessment will help pinpoint what may need to change and this can then be communicated to employees so they have a better idea of what their workplace will look like upon their return. It is highly likely that a COVID-secure risk assessment was created after the first lockdown, however it is important to revisit it and ensure the risks and controls are still relevant.

IOSH recommend completing a separate risk assessment for COVID-19 and have produced a detailed guide for organisations from all industries, so they can complete a full assessment. It is important to remember that completing a risk assessment alone does not effectively control the risks. It is through implementing the required actions/control methods that will mitigate the risks. Controls such as additional cleaning, use of PPE, social distancing and staggered start and finish times may be measures decided upon as a result of the risk assessment and some will require new policies to be created for your organisation. You can download our example policies here for guidance. Share your policies with your employees so they have confidence that their health and safety is taken seriously.

Health and safety must come first. People shouldn’t re-enter workplaces until employers are certain that they’re properly managing the risk of infection and providing the support that workers need. Prevention has to be the focus because, if organisations don’t get this right, workplaces can become places of transmission.

Richard Jones, head of policy and regulatory engagement at IOSH

Ongoing monitoring 

Once your risk assessment is complete, or suitably amended, it will need to be reviewed regularly. As further government guidance comes to light and our knowledge of the Coronavirus grows, controls may need to be maintained or adapted. This is an unprecedented situation that the world hasn’t seen before, so employers need to talk with their employees to strengthen relationships and help their business adapt successfully. Therefore it is essential to acknowledge that measures may not be working or listen to employee concerns or suggestions. It will be better for everyone in the long run. It is also important to remember that other health and safety issues, including fire safety and COSHH training cannot take a back seat. An organisation still has a legal obligation to protect the safety of its employees, and the Coronavirus is another risk to be managed alongside many others. 

Support your employees with online training

Part of the OSH Manager’s role is to implement the health and safety policies that have been identified through the risk assessment, and ensure that managers and employees also follow these policies. Therefore training is hugely important in helping employees to understand certain risks and how they can play their part towards keeping safe. iHASCO has a returning to work training bundle which provides training on a variety of areas including returning to work after COVID-19, fire safety, infection prevention and control and mental health awareness. If employees feel they work for an organisation that is supportive and takes their safety seriously, they will feel more confident and motivated to get back to the workplace. You can sign up for a no obligation free trial to see how our online courses can support your organisation with health and safety compliance. 

For further information

You can read the following blogs below for more advice about getting your employees back to work safely and smoothly.

Returning to work risk assessment basics

10 effective tips for creating a safe workplace post COVID-19

Steps to protect the health & safety of returning employees

A promotional image for our Returning to Work Essentials Training bundle