The COVID-19 pandemic has been a unique experience for the world, completely disrupting daily life. No organisation has been untouched by its impact. Because of this, Health and Safety is now something that every business needs to be actively engaged with and put on the top of their list of priorities.
As the UK starts to learn to live with COVID-19, businesses are starting to the look to the future and plan with more confidence. One of the things it makes sense to add to these plans is how to deal with future pandemics. After recent experiences, every organisation should have this front of mind.
The World Health Organisation believe other zoonotic diseases – those that originate in animals and cross over to humans – are highly likely to emerge in the near future. 75% of all new diseases come from animals. In the last 20 years alone, there were five significant threats before COVID-19. SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu and swine flu all had the potential to have a devasting impact on a global scale. The most severe consequences of these diseases were averted but the experience of the last 18 months shows just how dangerous they can be.
Putting protection into practice
Here are the steps we recommend that you take to keep your employees and your business as protected as possible from any future pandemics:
The first step is to conduct a workplace risk assessment. This will determine what precautions are reasonable to take within your workplace. If there has been an infectious outbreak in the community, you should ensure that a hazard assessment is conducted that is particular to the infectious virus or disease risk and the conditions of the workplace. This should include consideration of the physical layout of the workplace and the nature of the work being performed.
It is essential that you double down on the health and safety practices you’ve been advised to implement during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure resilience is maintained in the future. Learn from this experience and ensure all employees know what the guidelines for your business are and where to find them.
Infection prevention and control will become an established part of every business. Included in your company’s Health and Safety policy and procedures should be details on how to prevent the spread of pathogens (bacteria, virus or other microorganisms that can cause disease) through good hygiene practices and testing. Identifying and addresses the causes of ill health are already required under health and safety law and your procedures around these should be reviewed regularly.
To put an effective plan in place, you must consider the obligations you have as an employer during an infectious disease outbreak. These including:
- taking reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of your workforce
- accommodating employees who become disabled as a result of the infectious disease, for example long COVID-19
- allowing affected employees to take a leave of absence
- respecting the employee's privacy rights
You should also consider the following and how you can best manage these to keep everyone as safe as possible.
- The risks associated with temporarily reducing the workforce during a pandemic
- The risks associated with business or personal travel overseas during a pandemic
- Addressing the impact of health on the capacity of employees to work, for example supporting those with disabilities and health conditions, and helping them get back to working as much as they can.
As we continue to work differently, with less travel and more digital and remote working, employers need to update their policies and procedures to consider the impact these new ways of working may have on employees’ mental health. While there are many benefits to employees having more flexible working patterns, there are also some downsides. Employees can feel more isolated and lonelier, causing more stress and anxiety. Employers have a duty to protect the mental wellbeing of their staff and should factor employees’ mental health in all their risk assessments.
A healthy workforce should be a priority for all
The last 18 months have revealed how important and fragile good health is. Keeping physically and mentally healthy has so many benefits, making people happier, more resilient and positive. While employee wellbeing has been on the business agenda for the last decade or so, it really does need to be taken seriously and have more dedicated focus. Helping employees to lead healthier lifestyles will help ensure they are better able to cope with the impact of any future pandemic.