Changing Health and Safety Standards in a Post-Covid Landscape
As the UK’s third national lockdown begins to ease and signs of life are breathed back into our streets, the ‘post-Covid’ world that we had only dared to imagine until now is beginning to emerge. The pandemic has initiated important conversations for society and the extent of its impact may not be fully understood for some time to come. With office spaces set to open again in the coming weeks and months, clarity for new guidelines is essential for a frictionless transition. As such, for many industries, new health and safety standards are likely to be one of the most enduring legacies of the pandemic.
Legally, all employers are required to ensure the safety of their staff through rigorous risk assessments. Since the start of the pandemic, this process has been overhauled to include appropriate procedures to prevent staff from contracting coronavirus in their workplace. For those unable to work from home during the pandemic, new procedures include temperature checks on arrival at work, sanitisation of surfaces, social distancing measures and the use of face coverings and face-fit tested FFP3 respirators (when social distancing guidelines cannot be met). One of the biggest health and safety challenges for employers has been carrying out risk assessments in the same way as prior to the pandemic. Usually, when conducting risk assessments, a risk rating is calculated by evaluating the likelihood and severity of each hazard, however because the virus affects individuals so differently, it isn’t possible to judge the severity of the hazard in this way. As such, most risk assessments conducted for COVID-19 health and safety regulations have been based exclusively on likelihood.
Interestingly, whilst for the past year, huge emphasis has been placed on regularly sanitising surfaces, there is growing concern that such actions are largely redundant and are therefore becoming a performative activity to give a greater impression of safety. The British Medical Journal is the most recent body to publish concerns on this matter. A report published just last week, on 14th April, examines the shift in emphasis on how the virus is transmitted, asserting that sanitising surfaces is far less important than has so far been suggested. The report states that ‘over a year into the covid-19 pandemic, we are still debating the role and importance of aerosol transmission for SARS-CoV-2, which receives only a cursory mention in some infection control guidelines’. According to this report, transmission only really occurs via airborne droplets and because droplets can remain airborne for hours, the most crucial action to take to protect staff in the workplace is to put measures in place to ventilate the space as much as possible. Air replacement or cleaning mechanisms will therefore be vital for offices going forward. Improved air quality will also afford businesses other benefits, such as fewer absences for other respiratory viruses.
The science suggests that COVID-19 may become a seasonal virus that affects society in the same way as influenza. As such, we have to find ways to live with it and formulating workable health and safety procedures to improve ventilation should be the first port of call for businesses. As the picture of what the ‘new normal’ will look like in a post-pandemic UK becomes clearer, one thing is for certain – health and safety will never look the same again.