As an employer or senior manager, you will be taking the corona virus outbreak seriously, and you may be wondering if there are actions you should be taking.
An employer has no duties under the Health and Safety law to employees in respect of corona virus, providing the risk to them is not greater than to other members of the population because of their job. If the risk to them is greater than to others, for instance because you provide health care, deal regularly with travellers from hotspots, or yourselves travel to destinations where there is an exceptional risk, then you will need to obtain special advice.
So you’re not going to get prosecuted if the entire place goes down with corona virus, but you can foresee a definite risk to your business. Is there anything you could be doing?
It is never a good idea to have people at work who are sick. Many employees will try to prove their loyalty and grit by coming into work when they are not fit, but it does nobody any favours. They are likely to spread their illness around, so that you end up with 10 people off sick instead of one. People who are at work when sick are much more likely to make mistakes, have accidents and make poor decisions. The impairment due to a heavy cold is something similar to being over the drink driving limit. You really want them at work? It is best to strongly discourage anyone with cold or flu symptoms from coming into work, and to send them home if they turn up.
How the Virus Spreads
Corona virus is a droplet borne infection. If someone sneezes or coughs, the droplets containing the virus will be airborne, and you could inhale them if you are in close proximity at the time. More likely though, is that the infected person will have virus on their hands, possibly from covering their mouth when they cough, and they will deposit particles containing the virus on every surface they touch. The virus can live up to 72 hours on a hard surface, less than that on a soft surface. Everyone who touches that surface will have corona virus on their hand, which they can transfer to their eyes, nose or mouth when touching their face. We are reckoned to touch our faces unconsciously about 16 times every hour. The only protection is to wash your hands thoroughly after touching that contaminated surface and before touching your face.
You are required to provide handwashing facilities for your workers, and if you are in any doubt, you might check that these are clean, pleasant, conveniently placed, and equipped with soap, hot and cold water and a hygienic means of hand drying.
You may find it useful to remind your employees that handwashing is the very best thing they can do for themselves and others at the moment.
Feel a sneeze or cough coming on? Just a response to dust or the start of something worse? Use a tissue to catch the cough or sneeze, bin the tissue immediately, and wash your hands. Do not put the tissue in your pocket for later.
If you employ people whose work takes them out and about, and who have no fixed workplace, the provision of handwashing facilities is very difficult. If you can, arrange for them to have access to handwashing at the start and end of the day, and at breaktimes. Also provide them with a good hand sanitiser in a convenient format to be kept with them. Again, remind them to use it.
Don’t forget that binning that contaminated tissue is not the end of the road. The cleaners will still have to dispose of it. They must not do so by grabbing the contents of the bin and shovelling them into a black bag. They should use good heavy duty gloves, and remove the bag from the waste bin, tie it, and dispose of it. When they have finished and remove the gloves, do not pull them off with the other hand or you will get a dose of the contamination the gloves were meant to protect you from. Wash your hands thoroughly with the gloves on, dry them, remove the gloves, and wash your hands again. This is the rule when wearing gloves for protection against chemicals too.
You want to keep your cleaners well, because they can be your best help in this. You might want to increase the frequency with which they wipe down hard surfaces, particularly door handles, toilet flushes and push plates on doors.
Travel and Large Gatherings
There is an increased risk in using public transport, and attending large gatherings, and also in visiting certain destinations, although this latter point becomes less important as the virus spreads globally. You may want to assess whether the business gain from sending staff to gatherings, or to travel, still outweighs the risk of them becoming sick and possibly affecting your other staff. There is no right or wrong answer, so you will need to use your judgement. The view of the member of staff involved should also be taken into account.
Some people now offer me fist bumps as opposed to handshakes, and I am happy with that, but I will also shake hands if invited to do so. Again, this will be a personal decision. If your job entails meeting lots of different people, your risk is greater, and you might find it sensible to shy away from handshakes.
People who are known to have been in contact with a corona virus sufferer are normally told to self quarantine for a period of time, usually two weeks. This is people who are well, but have possibly been infected. You should support this, and never encourage or even permit them to come into work. They can perfectly well do their work from home in many cases. Try to find some way for them to continue to work, and pay them as normal.
Depending on your business, a greater degree of home working may be possible for a majority of staff. This is definitely worth thinking about if it is viable for you. It keeps them safe, and keeps your business running. Make plans now in case this is pushed upon you at a later stage.