COVID-19: how to stay safe at work

In a bid to get the economy moving and return some normalcy to day-to-day life, the government is encouraging those who can't work from home to go back to work. If you're back at the office or having to catch public transport every day, how can you stay safe?

After months of working from home, for many people the prospect of returning to work can seem a little daunting, especially as the number of infections is rising again.

So, if you're no longer able to work from home, how can you ensure you're COVID-secure when you return to work? And are there extra steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you? Dr Tom Maggs, general manager of healthcare app Caidr, and Dr Earim Chaudry medical director and NHS clinical director at men's health platform Manual explain.

Usual rules apply

Going back into work won't be just like it was before, if you are allowed back into your workplace. You will still have to follow social distancing guidelines, a limited number of people will be allowed in enclosed spaces like offices, and extra cleaning will need to be done.

Some offices are likely to implement a 'one-way’' system to prevent people from passing too closely next to each other, and there will be rules in place about using communal mugs and cutlery.

Some workplaces will require employees to wear a mask, while others won't. According to the Government guidance, "face coverings must be worn by retail, leisure and hospitality staff working in areas that are open to the public and where they're likely to come into contact with a member of the public." However, transport staff aren't required to wear masks, but are recommended to if they're unable to socially distance from passengers, for example.

The government has outlined guidance for all workplaces, which you can take a look at here.

"Minimising risk when returning to work is a case of continuing the actions we have become used to since the start of the pandemic," Dr Maggs says.

That includes (in England):

  • Remaining socially distanced at two metres, or one metre plus other precautions such as wearing a face coverings.
  • Washing your hands regularly and thoroughly for 20 seconds.
  • Wearing a face covering where social distancing is not possible.

Your employer's responsibilities

Maggs adds that employers should teach employees about the guidelines and provide as much support as possible.

"Ensure employees are shown and taught effective hand washing techniques," he suggests. "Explanations for the increased precautions that have been necessarily introduced in the workplace may also help with uptake and compliance. Many employers are putting in alcohol gel machines for hand washing, and temperature monitoring when entering the workplace."

If you have symptoms you should not go to work. Instead, you need to self-isolate and book a test.

Dr Chaudry says: "In general, all employees should be provided with a clean and hygienic workplace with the proper provision of hand sanitisers and face masks. Social distancing should be practiced by implementing multiple exits and entrances, reducing working hours where appropriate and by the use of signboards."

He adds that employers who require their workers to travel overseas should allow for self-isolation rules when they return.

Extra steps

While your boss should be doing all they can do to ensure your workplace is COVID-secure, there are a few extra steps you can take as well.

"Other tips could include carrying some portable alcohol gel, reducing contact between different surfaces within the workplace as much as possible and avoiding in-person meetings," Dr Maggs explains.

"Lunch breaks taken at your desk or some nearby outdoor space rather than a communal space, and any increased ventilation is going to be helpful, so open those windows wide while we still can."

Avoiding public transport, where possible, will also reduce your risk of the virus. "Walking, cycling or driving alone is going to be relatively low risk," Dr Maggs adds. "For those for whom this is not possible, getting public transport will need you to follow the safer travel guidance. Avoiding rush hours and ensuring you wear a face covering will minimise your risk as much as possible."

Again, face coverings and carrying anti-viral hand gel with at least 60% alcohol should be used on public transport to minimise the spread of the virus. You can also check transport operators' websites, including Transport for London or National Rail, to keep updated on the latest guidance.

Office workers

"As we return closer to normality, following employers procedures whilst also maintaining a high level of personal hygiene and COVID-safety will be important,” Dr Maggs says. "Workplace adjustments such as temperature measurements on arrival, hand washing facilities, and mask wearing have been introduced in many offices."

While working in an office you should try to keep everything you use as separate as possible, Dr Chaudry adds.

"You should have your separate stationery, utensils, water, and sanitiser with you. Sanitise your hands again and again, preferably after every contact with an object or person in the office," he explains. "You should bring your own water with you at your workplace. Try to avoid touching your face as it may be a source of viral transmission. Keep the workplace neat and clean."

If anyone in the office develops symptoms they should alert their employer immediately. All other workers will need to be screened and the office will need to be appropriately disinfected.

Retail, hospitality and beauty

Not everyone works in an office, so different measures will need to be taken to ensure the workplace is COVID-secure.

"Employees who work in retail and hospitality centres like spas, salons, Holy places, barbers, tailors, and bars should carry out COVID risk assessments," Dr Chaudry says.

As with offices, social distancing and frequent hand sanitising are important. In some places temperature checks upon arrival will need to be undertaken.

"In cases where social distancing is not possible you are supposed to work from behind the client or work with gloves when it comes to personal contact with the skin of the client," he adds.

"An appointment should be given to clients to prevent congestion at the workplace. When giving an appointment to the client, all the relevant questions about signs and symptoms should be asked.

"Both the employee and client are supposed to remain isolated at home if they have any of the symptoms."

Dr Maggs reminds people not to get complacent if there are no outbreaks at your place of work.

"Without good hand hygiene and mask wearing, you could put a large number of people at risk in a very short space of time," he says.

Construction, agriculture and outside work

Just as in other workplaces, those working outside in agriculture or construction still need to carry out proper hand sanitising, social distancing and use of face coverings where social distancing is not possible. Temperature checks on arrival may also be done.

"It is widely accepted that coronavirus is less likely to spread outdoors than indoors. This does not mean that you can completely relax outdoors though," Dr Maggs says. "Particularly in jobs where you are required at times to work in close proximity to other people, such as construction, appropriate PPE should be provided."

Dr Chaudry adds that groups of no more than 30 are allowed when working outdoors.

He also suggests staggering work start and finish times to avoid congestion,

"Employees working in outdoor, railways services, forests, waste management, agriculture, and factories should carry out risk assessment and ensure its documentation. Preventive measures should be adopted at every level."

As with other places of work, if someone develops symptoms, they should self-isolate and report it to their employer immediately so appropriate steps can be taken to protect other workers and disinfect workspaces.

The government is regularly updating its guidance for workplaces, so your employer will let you know if anything changes.

But for now, as long as you are practising social distancing, washing your hands as often as possible, carrying anti-viral hand sanitiser and wearing a face covering where social distancing is not possible, then you're doing all you can to protect yourself and others.

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