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.

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

Workforce planning

Information about supporting those who should come to work, and those who should not.

As a minimum we expect:

  • working from home to continue to be the default, where possible. That might include a blended approach, using laboratory facilities when necessary, while working from home to analyse and interpret data, or tele-conferencing to discuss findings with colleagues
  • health factors to be considered in any phasing of who returns to work, with employees living in vulnerable or shielded households only expected to return when new safe working environment measures have been implemented and a return to on-site work is consistent with individual medical advice
  • new laboratories and research facilities arrangements to be tested and modified through collaboration between employers and employees
  • organisations to take travel to work and childcare considerations into account in decisions around a phased restart

Continue home working

Minimising the spread of the virus will remain important in ensuring the overall protection of public health. Therefore planning for a safe return to work should assume that those able to work from home will continue to do so. Organisations should plan for the minimum number of people needed on-site to operate safely and effectively, with a phased return necessary for many organisations. Home-working should be the default, where possible.

This means that only work that requires access to laboratories and research facilities should be completed on-site. If work can be completed from home, it should be. 

Home working will be new to many and may have been implemented at pace, without normal health and safety planning to ensure people have suitable working arrangements and equipment. Organisations should also consider how to best support working from home (for example, provision of laptops, mobile phones, video conferencing services, etc.). Please see the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advice on home working for further information.

We have also published guidance to support the continuation of homeworking during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Scotland has also provided guidance for employers for those who are homeworking with protected characteristics.

Pilot measures

Implementing new enhanced safety measures may take time to bed in. It is good practice to pilot measures, either within part of a facility and / or with a proportion of the workforce at lower risk from the virus, before rolling out across the workplace as a whole. Travel to work and childcare considerations for individual employees should be taken into account by organisations in discussion with trade unions or employee representatives, before deciding which individuals to involve in pilots and a phased restart.

Employee health and wellbeing

Employers should ensure the organisational culture is inclusive, with the aim that every employee should feel that they are returning to a supportive, caring and safe environment. The pandemic has had an unequal impact across the workforce, as different employee groups, and individuals, will have been affected in diverse ways according to factors such as their job role, research discipline, and demographic/ personal circumstances. Therefore, it is important that organisations foster a fair and inclusive working environment that does not tolerate discrimination. There is also a risk of victimisation of those who have been infected by, or suspected of being so, or are more vulnerable to COVID-19 which should be addressed.

The following guides from the Health and Safety Executive provide useful sources of information:

Individual health circumstances and protected characteristics should be considered and discussed with workers before prioritising who is asked to return to work. This should recognise the protective measures required to minimise health risks to vulnerable or shielded workers. Workers in the shielding category should not be expected to physically attend work as long as the shielding advice is in place. Every effort must be made to explore how they can work from home. Permission should be sought from individuals before collecting any information on health conditions of those within their household.  

Consideration should be given within the risk assessment as to whether staff might be at higher risk than others depending on their individual circumstances, health conditions or belonging to a group with legally protected characteristics.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Scotland can provide advice on a range of issues such as:

EHRC have also produced guidance for public sector employers about equality impact assessments and having due regard to the Public Sector Equality Duty and Scottish Specific Duties during the pandemic.

Reasonable adjustments should be made to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage, and the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers should be assessed. It is important to make sure the steps implemented do not have an unjustifiably negative impact on some groups compared to others, for example, those with caring responsibilities or those with religious commitments.

Given that there is some evidence which suggests that COVID-19 may impact disproportionately on some groups, in particular Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, employers should ensure that Occupational Health Service provide practical support to BAME staff, particularly where they are anxious about protecting themselves and their families.  All minority ethnic staff with underlying health conditions and disabilities, who are over 70, or who are pregnant should be individually risk assessed, and appropriate workplace adjustments should be made following risk assessment.

Organisations should also acknowledge the range of factors likely to cause stress or anxiety amongst employees, ranging from living with lockdown arrangements to concerns about travel, schools, caring responsibilities and relatives impacted by the virus, amongst others. This may have implications for mental health with managers encouraged to be conscious of how these factors may impact on the well-being of individual staff members. Organisations and trade union or workforce representatives should be alert to this and direct anyone experiencing mental health issues towards available support.

Close the Gap, through their ‘Think Business Think Equality’ toolkit, have produced guidance on employers supporting workers affected by domestic abuse during the pandemic. A more general online self-assessment resource for employers on domestic abuse is also available. The RNIB also provide information on employing partially sighted and blind workers during COVID, and a COVID risk assessment tool.

Close the Gap have also produced some actions that employers can take to reduce discrimination and advance gender equality at work.  

Returning to work

  • conduct individual risk assessments for pregnant women and women returning to work from maternity leave
  • conduct individual risk assessments for BME women who are disproportionately affected by Covid-19
  • ensure that all employees have access to PPE, where required, and that it is appropriately sized and well-fitting for female staff
  • support disabled female employees by conducting risk assessments, and make reasonable adjustments where required
  • ensure return to work plans and risk assessments consider the impact of caring responsibilities, which mainly affects women, and include mitigation where this affects an employee’s ability to return to work safely
  • ensure that all staff, including part-time staff who are mainly women, and those returning from maternity leave are able to access training on returning to the workplace, and that this is delivered within working hours

Caring responsibilities 

  • adopt a default flexible approach to staff with caring responsibilities, who are more likely to be women. This could include flexible hours, reduced or reallocated workloads, and/or using flexible furlough provisions
  • regularly check-in with staff to see how they are managing balancing work with caring responsibilities. This may change if there is a move to blended learning in schools, or if individual schools, nurseries and care services are temporarily closed or reduced again
  • ensure staff who are caring for someone that has been shielding, which will be more likely to be female staff, are supported to work from home if they wish to

Data gathering

Collect intersectional gender-disaggregated data on the impact of COVID-19 on employees. This could include data on:

  • staff who have been furloughed, by job role, grade, division/service, and the reason for furloughing
  • the impact of working from home, and how this was affected by childcare, home learning and care for older people and disabled people
  • which employees have returned to work
  • changes to working patterns and
  • employees who have been made redundant, or are currently in a selection pool for redundancy, by job role and grade

Close the Gap recommend using this data to identify gendered patterns in the experiences of male and female staff, which will help to inform workforce planning and employment practice during Covid-19.

Apprenticeships and training providers

Apprentices can return to work at the same time as their co-workers. For specific concerns regarding the safe return to work for apprentices there is information and support and apprentices can speak to an advisor directly on 0800 917 8000.

It is important to ensure there is a functioning training infrastructure to support economic recovery and the sustainability of apprenticeship programmes. For those Training Providers and assessors that are providing continuity of contracted services for apprentices, learners and employers in the workplace during the pandemic must adhere to the applicable sectoral guidance.

Outbreak management

Organisations should suspect an outbreak if there is either:

  • two or more linked cases (confirmed or suspected) of COVID-19 in a setting within 14 days - where cross transmission has been identified; or
  • an increase in staff absence rates, in a setting, due to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19

If an organisation suspects a COVID-19 outbreak, they should immediately inform their local NHS board Health Protection Team (HPT). The organisation may be then contacted by them, as they may get information from NHS Test & Protect or other sources.

In the event of an outbreak:

  • continue to follow 'General Guidelines' to reduce risk, as detailed above
  • the local Health Protection Team will undertake a risk assessment and conduct a rapid investigation. They will advise on the most appropriate action to take.
  • staff who have had close contact with case(s) will be asked to self-isolate at home. In some cases, a larger number of other staff may be asked to self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure. Where settings are observing guidance on infection prevention and control, which will reduce risk of transmission, the local health protection team will take this into account in determining whether closure of the whole setting will be necessary.
  • depending on the risk assessment outcome, the Health Protection Team may establish an Incident Management Team (IMT) to help manage the situation
  • the Incident Management Team will lead the Public Health response and investigations, and work with the organisation to put appropriate interventions in place

To control an outbreak the Health Protection Team and Incident Management Team will work with the organisation to put appropriate interventions in place. These will generally include ensuring that the preventive measures described in 'General guidelines to prevent spread of COVID-19' (detailed above) are fully implemented. Other measures may include:

  • cleaning in the setting: for cleaning and waste management, refer to guidance on cleaning in non-healthcare settings for maintaining hygiene.consider wider testing of affected population and staff
  • information: ensure that staff (and other relevant people) are aware of what has happened and the actions being taken
  • closure: may be done following advice from the Health Protection Team and Incident Management Team or the business may make their own decision on closure ahead of this advice as a precaution or for business continuity reasons

The Health Protection Team or Incident Management Team will declare when the outbreak is over.

Legionella testing

There is an increased risk of Legionnaire’s Disease when buildings have been out of use, or not running at full capacity. This is because water systems may become stagnant when not in use, increasing the risk of legionella within water supplies. Many public and office buildings have been closed during the COVID-19 crisis, making legionella a legitimate concern as lockdown restrictions are eased.

The Health and Safety Executive have published advice on the risk of Legionella in buildings which are closed or running with reduced occupancy during the COVID-19 crisis on the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) website. 

Building owners or operators should undertake a health and safety check of buildings, and deep cleaning prior to reopening where necessary, to mitigate risks. More information can be found on the HSE website.

Test and Protect

Test and Protect, Scotland’s approach to implementing the 'test, trace, isolate, support' strategy is a public health measure designed to break chains of transmission of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the community.

The NHS will test people who have symptoms, trace people who may have become infected by spending time in close contact with someone who tests positive, and then support those close contacts to self-isolate. That means if they have the virus they are less likely to pass it on to others. Organisations will play a vital role in ensuring that their workers are aware of and able to follow the public health advice and should ensure that fair work principles are followed when staff members have to self-isolate. 

Organisations should follow public health guidance if a worker becomes unwell with coronavirus symptoms at work. The person should leave work to selfisolate straight away and, if possible, wear a face covering on route and avoid public transport. 

Organisations should direct workers to NHS Inform or, if they can’t get online, call 0800 028 2816, to arrange to get tested.

Until they have been tested and told if it is safe to leave home, organisations should make sure that staff do not have to, or feel that they have to, come in to work. Workers can request an isolation note through NHS Inform.

People who have tested positive for the virus will need to self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days. NHS contact tracers will interview them and get in touch with people they have been in close contact with, and tell them they must self-isolate for 14 days. If organisations are informed by a contact tracer that they should isolate, organisations should help them to do so straight away. They may feel well, as the virus could still be incubating when they are asked to isolate.

Some people who are asked to isolate may not become unwell, but they must stay at home and self-isolate for the full 14 days.  Organisations can ask them to work from home if they are able to and they are not unwell. Organisations should not ask someone isolating to come into work before their period of isolation is complete, in any circumstances.

Testing has an important part to play in our response to COVID-19, and has a vital but limited role as a confidence-building measure. In a disease with a 14 day incubation period, a negative test result before the end of the incubation period does not remove the possibility that a person who tests negative could go on to develop the disease and infect others.

Where Infection Prevention Control measures have been utilised such as protective screen or use of PPE, the contact tracer will conduct a risk assessment to identify contacts at risk. The priority is to public health in order to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19.

More information can be found on the Test and Protect website and the NHS Inform website provides further health advice and information including on duration of self-isolation.

For Test and Protect and contact tracing purposes, a household contactis defined as:

  • those who are living in the same household as a case (e.g. those that live and sleep in the same home, or in shared accommodation such as university accommodation that share a kitchen or bathroom ·
  • those who do not live with the case but have contact within the household setting: Those that have spent a significant time in the home (cumulatively equivalent to an overnight stay and without physical distancing e.g. 8 hours or more) with a case
  • sexual contacts who do not usually live with the case
  • cleaners (without protective equipment) of household settings during the infectious period, even if the case was not present at the time.

Pay for workers who are sheltering, self-isolating, sick or balancing care responsibilities is likely to be a source of concern for employees. Organisations should work with trade union or workforce representatives to provide early guidance to workforces on processes and support for individuals affected by these issues. Again, opportunities to facilitate home working where feasible should be actively pursued and maintained. 

Contact tracing app

Protect Scotland is an entirely voluntary app that is an additional part of NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect service.  Having the app should never be a requirement for any workplace.  The app complements but does not replace manual contact tracing.  It enhances contact tracing and quickly alerts app users that are at risk as they have come into close contact (less than 2m for 15 minutes or more) with an app user that has since tested positive for Covid-19. Further information about the contact tracing app for employers, workers and customers is available.  

Contact tracing

Organisations must ensure that contact details for staff, students and visitors are up-to-date, and that staff and students are aware of their responsibility to alert the organisation to any changes.

Organisations should keep records of staff and students who have attended labs and research facilities. Records should also be kept of visitors and contractors. Particular attention should be made to the guidance on lawful data collection and management.

Temperature checking 

The Scottish Government does not recommend the use of temperature checking employees as a means of testing for COVID-19 due to the low efficacy rate of this method.  Further information about the reliability of temperature checking as a test for COVID-19 can be found on the MHRA website.


Special consideration for people at high clinical risk

From 1 August 2020 those who were shielding could go back to workplaces where they cannot work from home. Their employer should support them to do so safely and ensure they can stringently follow public health guidance around physical distancing and hygiene.  There may, however, be the requirement to revert back to some level of shielding in the future at either a national or local level if the number of cases rise. Those who previously had to shield will be kept informed of any relevant health advice if things do change. Institutions and providers can also keep up to date with the most recent advice on the Scottish Government website.

In order to support this, an individual risk assessment guidance and tool has been developed to help staff and managers consider the specific risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. It is relevant to all staff, but will be particularly relevant to those who are returning to work after shielding, those who are returning to normal duties after COVID-19 related restrictions, those who are returning to the workplace after working from home or anyone who has a concern about a particular vulnerability to COVID-19.

When planning on extending/resuming activities, including the formation of student households, institutions and providers should consider that some students may be required to shield should the guidance on people at high clinical risk change.

Page last updated 14 September 2020

First published: 29 Jun 2020 Last updated: 14 Sep 2020 -