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.

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 employees, staff and students before prioritising who is asked to return to work and when. This should recognise the protective measures required to minimise health risks to vulnerable or shielded workers, or those living in vulnerable or shielded households, exploring whenever possible how these staff can work from home. Consideration of health circumstances and protected characteristics should be given to this as part of the risk assessment process. Permission should be sought from individuals before collecting any information on health conditions of those within their household.

It is important to take into account the particular circumstances of those with different protected characteristics. This could include involving and communicating appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might either expose them to a different degree of risk, or any steps taken may be inappropriate or challenging for them.

Consideration should be given as to whether any particular measures or adjustments are required to fulfil duties under the Equality Act 2010. 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.

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.

People who have tested positive for the virus will need to self-isolate for a minimum of seven 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 any of your employees are informed by a contact tracer that they should isolate, you should help them to do so straight away.

A close contact is defined as:

  • those that are living in the same household as a case
  • face-to-face contact with a case within one metre for any length of time
  • extended close contact within two metres for more than 15 minutes with a case

Where Infection Prevention Control measures have been utilised, such as protective screens or the 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.

Advice for employers on helping staff who need to self-isolate is also available.

Planning should recognise that ongoing physical distancing measures required to reduce the spread of the virus may mean that the number of employees able to be accommodated safely in the workplace is limited. The workforce may have questions or concerns about returning to work. Organisations are encouraged to work with trade union or workforce representatives to enable individuals to work from home while self-isolating, if appropriate. If able to work from home, employees should continue to do so after a period of self-isolation has ended. 

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.

Workers who are shielding, or who live with someone who is shielding, should not be compelled to attend work and organisations should make arrangements to ensure those staff are not disadvantaged due to obeying medical advice. Organisations should explore measures such as suspending the normal application of sickness or disciplinary procedures related to attendance in these cases. 

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.

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.