Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for laboratories and research facilities

Guidance for laboratories and research facilities, including those on university campuses, on safer working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Contents
Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for laboratories and research facilities
Assessing risk

Assessing risk

Health and Safety

In aligning with the above principles and planning, this guidance does not supersede existing health and safety legislation and organisations will continue to abide by these obligations, including the legal duty on employers to conduct risk assessments and engage with health and safety committees.

Specifically on COVID-19, and through all phases of emerging from lockdown, organisations will have regard to general health and safety guidance (For example https://www.hse.gov.uk/news/assets/docs/working-safely-guide.pdf) and to the requirements for reporting cases.

Employers must ensure that the risks are controlled so far as is reasonably practicable. All employers need to carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment, as they would for other health and safety related hazards.  This is a risk-led approach to identify and implement sensible measures to control the risks. The assessment should consider what measures need to be implemented to protect the health and safety of all staff, students, visitors and contractors. These will be influenced by site specific factors.

Controls should be considered following the hierarchy of control approach, i.e. measures such as working from home, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning regimes should be prioritised with the use of PPE being a measure of last resort..  Outcomes should explain to others what they are required to do and help staff with planning and monitoring to ensure the controls are implemented and remain effective and are updated in the light of emerging evidence or changes in public health advice.

Involving the workforce in a risk-based approach

As a minimum we expect:

  • a risk-based approach to be followed to protect the health and safety of employees, staff and students and ensure the longer-term economic viability of the organisation
  • employees, staff and students to be fully engaged in that process, through trade union or workforce representatives

The Health and Safety Executive’s short guide can help to support employers with what they need to do to comply with the law.  The risk assessments required to implement a risk-based approach may be considered to fall in two broad categories.

Firstly, there will be risk assessments to underpin general protocols describing how people can use a research facility or laboratory building. These will address questions regarding safely entering the building, moving around within it and using facilities such as offices, networked printers, canteens, toilets, etc. These will apply to everyone on the site and be drawn up by the management for the building, in consultation with relevant interested parties.

Secondly, further sets of risk assessments will be required relating to particular scientific operations undertaken in each research facility or laboratory. These will be immediately relevant to the groups of staff using each of the laboratories and facilities, and may be much less relevant to the rest of the staff. Delivery of these risk assessments will require considerable understanding of the risk assessment process as well as technical expertise in the relevant scientific operations, together with detailed knowledge of how people interact in the laboratories.

Joint working

This guidance has been developed in collaboration with industry and trade unions on the basis that both have essential roles to play in planning for restart. Organisations that have successfully been able to continue essential production, and laboratory and research activities, during the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted the importance of joint working. Protecting the health of employees, staff and students has been at the heart of this joint approach which is fundamental to establishing shared confidence around the safety of returning to places of work and supporting a recovery in productivity.

Implementation phases

Carrying out a robust risk assessment with full workforce involvement (of recognised trade union safety representatives or relevant employee safety representatives) will identify the practical measures that can be put in place to minimise the spread of the virus at a workplace level. Risk assessments should be completed for different laboratory and research facilities within the same building. The assessment should include a phased implementation timetable, structured broadly as set out below.

Planning

Plans to re-open a workplace should be developed in consultation with the workforce, staff and students and updated on an ongoing basis. Planning must be based around risk assessments and safe systems of work, emphasising physical distancing and hand washing, fair work principles and be designed to enable a restart that allows the organisation to operate while protecting employee health and well-being.  

Preparation

Physical distancing and hygiene measures require certain activities to be carried out before a restart – for example screens installed, one-way personnel movement systems established, two metre zones put in place, canteen re-arrangement, personal protective equipment (PPE) provision, hand sanitisers, etc. Briefings and inductions into the new ways of working must take place.  These all take time and require resourcing and commitment.

Pilots

Experience confirms the value of trialling new ways of working before a fuller restart is attempted. A limited-scale pilot to test systems, find weaknesses and make improvements before a fuller restart is essential.

Dynamic assessment

Risk assessments and adoption of mitigation measures should be part of regular, ongoing dialogue between employers and trade unions or workforce representatives. This dialogue should identify what measures are working, where refinements are possible and any gaps remaining. Reviews of measures and risks should be frequent, with daily assessments of progress initially not unusual.  

Open and ongoing engagement between trade union or workforce representatives should enable adjustments to be made quickly and smoothly at the relevant stage. This may include tightening workplace restrictions or reducing numbers on-site if the dynamic risk assessments indicate this is necessary.

Utilising expertise

Organisations should ensure their health and safety professionals and representatives have the skills, training and knowledge to understand the risks associated with COVID-19. Where organisations and their workforce do not have access to these skills in-house, they should explore external support options to put in place appropriate mitigation measures. For example, through their trade association, health and safety consultancies or trade union health and safety representatives. All of these can help organisations understand the risks associated with different activities and situations within individual organisations and offer the support that managers, staff and students may require.

For workplaces without union representation, union health and safety representatives are available upon request to support the development of workplace risk assessments.

Building confidence, supporting wellbeing

Returning workers may have concerns about how safe the working environment may be and so may require reassurance and evidence that recommended measures have been put in place to ensure safety. Employers should recognise the need to have clear and regular communications with employees, using multiple channels to reinforce key messages. Visual material has proven to be beneficial in demonstrating changes that have been, or are being, made, especially where language barriers exist.

A clear message from employers and trade unions is that building and maintaining employee confidence is vitally important and a challenge that should not be underestimated.