Undertaking a Covid-19 Risk Assessment
The welcome news that food businesses are slowly returning to normal also creates a dilemma for business owners and managers. Many have been hit with difficult financial situations and now must balance business as normal with increased safety procedures designed to protect staff and customers.
Following on from, Covid-19 Risk Assessment in Food Manufacturing environments (part 1): Working Safely during Covid-19 outbreak, this article briefly discusses some of the added risks posed by Coronavirus within food manufacturing environments.
Manufacturers should already be familiar with undertaking and implementing risk assessments as part of standard operations. The threat of covid has introduced a number of new risks and hazards that need to be considered, but the 5 point risk assessment plan (as detailed in the Safer Food Group’s Level 2 Health and Safety course) is an effective tool to use in the face of this new challenge.
An employer is legally responsible to protect their employees from harm at work https://www.hse.gov.uk/simple-health-safety/risk/index.htm – failure to do so can lead to prosecution, considerable fines and even prison sentences. A risk assessment should be carried out by a competent person who has adequate experience and oversight but involving workers in the process is a very good idea as this can often highlight hazards and risks unforeseen by managers or business owners. A very comprehensive example of a covid-19 risk assessment within a food business has been compiled by Food Standards Scotland , and examples of standard risk assessments for factories and food production are available via the HSE.
- Identify the hazards
Hazards are processes, environments or physical objects that may cause harm. In normal circumstances, you would have identified hazards by considering:
- Working processes and practices
- Plant and equipment
- Chemical and substances
- Working environment
In the current climate, you will need to consider a new hazard – the transmission of a highly contagious virus that has the potential to cause serious harm to a large percentage of your workforce if left unchecked. This could be within your business premises, or outside of your premises if you despatch goods or send people to work outside of your premises.
Write this down – either in additional to your normal workplace risk assessment, or as a specific document that addresses Covid-19 as an individual risk. If you would like to use our Risk Assessment template, click here.
- Assess the risk
How likely is the hazard to occur, and how much harm could it cause?
Unfortunately, in this case, the hazard could cause very significant harm. In business terms, you could experience a depletion in your workforce meaning you cannot continue day to day business, or you could transmit the virus to your customer, damaging your reputation. In personal terms, anyone who contracts the virus may be at risk of a considerable period of sickness, long term health effects or even death.
Think about the ways the virus can enter and be transmitted around your business. The current strain of Coronavirus has been shown to be particularly resistant and robust, surviving both in the air and on surfaces for considerable lengths of time. This is one of the reasons it has become such a dangerous disease.
Consider any person or object coming into your premises as a potential carrier of the disease, and think about their journeys as they move around your premises. At what stages in these journeys do people come into contact with other people or objects? Do workers share equipment, touch the same surfaces, work within a small area?
In your risk assessment, write down all the instances in which a person touches a surface or object that might have been touched by someone else – whether handling stock, ingredients or finished goods, sharing equipment or working in a shared workspace. Consider all of the times within a working day they be in close proximity to another person – don’t forget to think about break times, and periods before work when staff may gather to get changed or access leisure areas, rest areas and lockers.
As part of your assessment, you will need to understand if some people are at greater risk than others, either because of the job that they do, or because of their personal characteristics. Current guidance suggests that no specific groups of the population are unaffected by coronavirus, and as such you must consider all members of staff at risk. However, it is sensible to consider extra measures for those specifically identified as vulnerable, such as those with underlying health conditions, older people and pregnant women.
Add this information to your risk assessment document, so you remember to look at each group individually.
- Control the risk
Consider all of your examples in your risk assessment one by one. For each of them, you should aim to ELIMINATE the risk whenever possible – examples would be to:
- Monitor staff infection levels. Ensure that you have a clear reporting method for any staff that report covid symptoms, and that staff and managers are aware that any suspected cases must remain away from work premises as per government guidelines.
- Introduce a clear social distancing policy, that details how people should behave at all times whilst on your premises.
- Eliminate shared equipment: create individual named kit for every worker, and specify how this kit is kept apart from others’.
- Introduce clear zoning, so that each worker has their own obvious workspace. Enforce this with bold wall and floor signage and visual cues such as colour coding
- Close areas of congregation – this may mean that staff are not able to use on site facilities such as canteens if you are not able to provide adequate space for social distancing.
- Outsourcing elements of production if you cannot safely undertake them in house.
- Quarantine non perishable items that come into your business for a 72 hour period. For perishable items, you could create a suitably temperature controlled quarantine area as long as you are able to operate within use by dates
If you are unable to ELIMINATE any of your identified risks, you must take adequate steps to MINIMISE them. This might include:
- Regular cleaning schedules for plant and equipment that has to be shared by workers, ensuring surfaces are sanitised between each use.
- Provision of shields between workspaces if individuals are not able to keep at least 2m apart
- Provision of appropriate PPE if workers are likely to come into close contact with one another.
- Staggered breaks and work schedules to minimise the number of staff on premises at any point in time.
Handwashing remains one of the single most effective ways of reducing infection levels, so on top of any measures identified above, you must ensure staff have regular assess to clean, hot water and soap and are encouraged to use it on entering the premises and before and after touching surfaces and objects, on top of the normal levels of handwashing required to maintain good hand hygiene.
- Record your findings and implement them
Add the control measures to your risk assessment document and put everything in place to allow these control measures to take place.
A vital part of this step is COMMUNICATION. In order for your control measures to be effective, everyone must understand their role in the process and carry it out. The best approach to communication is to start with a face to face discussion, that allows workers to ask questions, and gain a good understanding of your new control measures. Follow this up by a simple written document that allows them to remind themselves of the process, and use simple, bold signage within the workplace to remind them of the most important details.
During the communication stage, do not be afraid of feedback given by staff – listen to what they have to say. Their understanding of some work processes may be greater than yours, or they may have more effective ideas of how to deal with the risk. It may be useful to revisit your plans in light of staff feedback – working in a collaborative way that recognises the contribution of others is more likely to result in an effective plan that the whole team can adhere to.
- Review your assessment and update if necessary
In light of the rapidly changing situation with Covid-19, you will need to monitor and review your measures on a regular basis to ensure their effectiveness. Some measures, such as staff absence levels should be monitored on a daily basis, in order to identify and deal with any unusual rises as quickly as possible.
Observe your control measures in action. Do they eliminate or minimise risk in the way that you intended? Do they introduce other, unconsidered risks (for instance – does increased handwashing create congregation points at sinks?)?
Keep lines of communication with staff open, seek and listen to their feedback and be prepared to adjust control measures if they are not effective. Whilst this is a period of adjustment and is unsettling for everyone, demonstrating that staff welfare is of genuine concern is very likely to have a positive long term effect within your workforce, as well as protecting your future business.