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.

The Scottish Government has also published guidance to support the continuation of homeworking during the coronavirus pandemic.

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 can provide advice on a range of issues such as non-discrimination, communication with workers on equality issues, adjustments for disabled people, support for pregnant workers, flexible working for those with caring responsibilities, support for workers affected by domestic abuse, how to deal with harassment at work, and mental health issues. 

Employers still have legal obligations to make sure that decisions they make in response to Coronavirus do not directly or indirectly discriminate against workers with protected characteristics. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced guidance to help with decision-making as you consider restarting work.

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.

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. The RNIB  also provide information on employing partially sighted and blind workers during COVID, and a COVID risk assessment tool.

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 at

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

Workers who need to self-isolate

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.

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. 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.

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.

See Scottish Test and Protect website and NHS Inform for further health advice and information including on duration of self-isolation.

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.


Protecting people who are higher risk

The shielding category consists of those who have been identified as being at the highest risk from severe illness from COVID-19. Individuals in the shielding category have been advised not to work outside the home, and this will continue until such times as the general advice to shield is paused. See NHS Inform for further information. People who live with someone who is shielding are not advised to stay away from work; however, they should be supported to stringently follow physical distancing guidance. 

Those identified as being at increased risk from COVID-19 are those following physical distancing advice more stringently. As they are at higher risk of severe illness (for example, people with some pre-existing conditions) they have been asked to take extra care in observing physical (social) distancing.  People who live with someone who is at increased risk are not advised to stay away from work, but as above, should be supported to stringently follow physical distancing guidance. 

Workers who are shielding, or who live with someone who is shielding, should not be compelled to attend work while the shielding advice is in place 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. 

The shielding advice is in place until at least 31 July. If the shielding advice is paused after this, then those who were shielding would be categorised as at increased risk and should follow physical distancing measures more stringently than the general population, and be risk assessed to ensure they can do this. The default position should remain that wherever possible, people should work from home and should only return to the workplace where they can do so safely.

If those at increased risk (but not in the shielding category) individuals cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, enabling them to maintain physical distancing. Workplace activities should be carefully assessed to identify if they involve an unacceptable level of risk.

Page last updated: 29 July 2020

First published: 29 Jun 2020 Last updated: 27 Jul 2020 -