03 June 2021
Lindsay MacNeill outlines the importance of adequately planning any return to the office, including assessing the associated risks, and establishing sufficient control measures to limit transmission.
2021 sees the UK and Scottish Governments announcing their roadmaps to ease restrictions. For many of us, a return to office working, to varying degrees, is on the horizon.
Lindsay MacNeill, Associate
Vikki Watt, Partner
Guidance for Employers
During this transition period, businesses should continue to follow the relevant Government guidance on working safely and put in place suitable and sufficient measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and to ensure continued “COVID secure” workplaces.
Whilst workplaces South of the Border are subject to new rules from 17 May, the current guidance from the Health and Safety Executive remains that employees should continue to work from home if they can. If office working is necessary, the HSE recommend that the following workplace hierarchy of controls remain unchanged:
o Social distancing
o Adequate ventilation
o Frequent cleaning
o Good hand hygiene
The HSE has helpful guidance for how all aspects of COVID-19 safety come together to create safer workplaces. Alongside the Scottish Government guidance, which tells us what we can do and when within the established national levels, the HSE has published comprehensive advice on creating and communicating your company’s plan to return to office working safely.
Returning to the workplace safely
It is essential that any return to the office is well planned; there must be a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks of doing so, coupled with sufficient control measures to limit risk of transmission so far as reasonably practicable. In preparing a risk assessment, employers must consider their individual workspaces, the staff numbers within those spaces and the working requirements for their staff in terms of shared equipment.
Training is recommended for all staff affected and new rules should be understood by all, with records kept of attendance at necessary sessions.
The UK Government and the Scottish and Welsh Administrations have introduced several public health measures to help reduce transmission. This includes aspects such as:
o Testing, tracking and tracing;
o Vaccinations; and
o Face coverings.
The Scottish Government guidance for employers who wish to offer testing for employees notes that the national Test and Protect system works for all those experiencing symptoms. If employers do wish to offer asymptomatic testing, or point of entry testing, this should be factored into the control measures arising from the risk assessment carried out. Temperature checks, for example, are flagged in the Scottish Government Guidance as being an unreliable method, in isolation, of detecting a possible carrier of the virus.
The NHS is currently leading the vaccine programme, which is being offered to the population in the order determined by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). There is helpful ACAS advice on getting the vaccine for work which notes that there is no law requiring a person to receive the vaccine before returning to work, although there may be individual contracts governing that.
ACAS notes that employers may, however, wish to inform their employees of the benefits of having the vaccine and reinforce that, even when vaccinated, an employee must adhere to the control measures in place regarding working safely in the office environment and any changes to the rules regarding shielding of vulnerable people. The ACAS advice also provides helpful talking points for employers to use where an employee does not want the vaccine.
Within the office environment, face coverings are considered to be a public health protection measure largely intended to help protect others. The HSE Guidance does not classify the face coverings we commonly use in public situations as personal protective equipment (PPE) and they are, therefore, not covered by health and safety legislation.
In Scotland, the relevant guidance requires that face coverings should be worn in any indoor communal area in a workplace and wherever there are no measures in place to keep people separated by either a partition or a distance of at least two metres. It is also advised that coverings are worn where social distancing is difficult to maintain, such as at the entrances and exits of buildings.
It should be noted that the HSE is actively carrying out spot checks and workplace visits in light of a significant increase in complaints by concerned employees, so employers should be prepared to show the considered approach they have taken to create a safe working environment. A robust risk assessment should assist employers in keeping workers safe. That, paired with open communication and ongoing discussion with employees about concerns, will chart a safe course for a return to office working in 2021.
Lindsay MacNeill, Associate: email@example.com / 0141 221 8012
Vikki Watt, Partner & Solicitor Advocate: firstname.lastname@example.org / 0141 225 5317
Scottish Government Guidance:
Coronavirus (COVID-19): creating and maintaining safer workplaces.
HSE Guidance on COVID-19 Risk Assessment:
COVID risk assessment.
HSE Guidance on return to work communication with employees: We have advice on talking to your workers about returning to work after a lockdown.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) - employee testing programmes: guidance for employers and
Getting the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine for work
Coronavirus (COVID-19): face coverings guidance —Face coverings in the workplace