Schools and offices must not underestimate new COVID-19 secure rules

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Francis Hunter of Ingleton Wood

Schools and workplaces planning to reopen under new Government guidelines are being encouraged to consider expert advice to help implement vital ‘COVID-19 Secure’ health and safety rules to protect students and office workers and safeguard businesses.

Francis Hunter, a health and safety specialist at Ingleton Wood, a property and construction consultancy based in Colchester, said it is “almost impossible” for workplaces to reopen with new social distancing rules without major changes to how they operate and urged employers not to underestimate the challenge of complying with ‘COVID-19 Secure’ measures and protecting their employees, pupils and others.

The government has announced a return to work for eight key industries and a phased reopening of primary schools on Monday June 1 as part of new measures to ease lockdown. Non-essential shops have been given the go-ahead to reopen June 15.

All workplaces must complete a health and safety risk assessment of coronavirus and display new ‘COVID-19 Secure’ certificates before staff can return.

Firms that fail to take action risk enforcement proceedings by the Health and Safety Executive or local authorities that could result in fines or criminal prosecution.

“It’s almost impossible for schools and workplaces to go back to how they were before and maintain social distancing at all times,” Francis said. “Corridors aren’t wide enough, staircases are too narrow, kitchens are too small, entry and exit points don’t have one-way flows. In addition, there is work needed to review internal air changes and air conditioning systems required. It just can’t be done and everyone including the government acknowledges this.

“We are therefore advising worried headteachers, property managers, business owners and others sat on the fence about reopening to follow government advice to inspect and find out just how exposed they are to possible coronavirus outbreaks and share their findings honestly with employees.

“Risk assessments are not new concepts, especially for schools and businesses, but implementing social distancing and other coronavirus health and safety measures is new territory and a real challenge that could require sweeping changes to physical layouts and work cultures.

“We must not fall into the trap of underestimating or ignoring these coronavirus-specific risk assessments. Wrong action could lead to devastating health, legal and economic effects.

“Everything we took for granted needs to be recontextualised and redesigned, and if employers do not feel 100% confident in becoming ‘COVID-19 secure’ then we advise them to get a sense check – a second expert opinion – to find out now how to mitigate risks in their specific environments and reopen as safely as possible whilst adhering to the guidance.

“This expertise will focus around space planning and a review of air changes by building services engineers.”

Employees can refuse to work if they have a reasonable belief of ‘serious or imminent danger’ to their health and others around them under employment laws*.

“No-one purposely puts staff or pupils in danger but there is a huge unknown liability risk, where do employers stand if someone contracts the virus? Unless they can show they did absolutely everything to create a safe environment, they could find themselves in a risky position,” Francis added.

“The fear of the unknown and conflicting advice is understandably causing concern and delay. That’s why we’re advising those responsible for helping to restart the post-coronavirus economic engine by reopening their sites to seek expert help to do so as safely as possible.”