Driving for Work and Coronavirus
The momentous changes that we have seen in workplaces up and down the land, and in society as a whole over recent weeks have got me thinking about some practical safety management issues and how to approach them in these extraordinary times. This is the first in a short series of articles addressing three areas – driving for work, statutory inspections and home working. I’d be interested in your views and invite you to share ideas on how your company has faced up to these unprecedented challenges.
First then, driving for work.
Let’s take a situation where 2-3 workers are sharing a van, like the garden centre ‘Luton’ that visited my neighbour’s house yesterday. Ordinarily, this is fine, of course. But what about at the moment? How can employers deal with this in a way that reduces the risk of infection between workers and between them and the public?
A risk assessment for normal driving operations and associated tasks should already have been done – if it hasn’t then an offence has already been committed. Until very recently, the risk of Covid-19 infection wasn’t reasonably foreseeable, but it is now. Therefore, existing risk assessments will need to be updated.
The written risk assessment will help the employer to find a reasonably practicable solution. If the worst happens and someone is harmed it will also help to insulate the employer against any criticism later on. This doesn’t mean that the employer will be let off just because they have a risk assessment; instead, they can argue in mitigation that they at least turned their minds to the risks.
When conducting or updating the risk assessment today, have in mind that someone may, in the future, look back at your decisions with the benefit of hindsight. This should inform your thinking and will act as a good sense check on the appropriateness of any decisions that are made. Always keep a written record.
The question arises as to whether an employer might be prosecuted if they fail to take reasonably practicable steps to safeguard their employees during this crisis. The answer is that it really depends on the circumstances. Technically speaking, a failure to take proper steps would be an offence, although that doesn’t automatically mean prosecution. The scale of the ‘offending’ might vary enormously, from a technical and forgivable oversight right through to blatant disregard of safe working practices.
For driving jobs, the first question to ask might be “Is the operation essential”? If it’s not and the employer insists that the work is still done and then a worker contracts Coronavirus, the employer may come in for some criticism, especially if no proper assessment has been made or precautions taken. But what of those driving jobs that are essential, what then?
Take police officers for example – is it essential that they drive for work purposes during the current epidemic? I would say that the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. So it wouldn’t be reasonably practicable to ban all police driving. Would it be reasonable to ‘single man’ vehicles in an effort to reduce infections between staff? Perhaps, but not in all cases. So where two or more workers have to share a vehicle, what reasonably practicable precautions might be taken? Here are some ideas:
- work in fixed teams i.e. partner with the same person or people to reduce the chances of close contact with new or different workers;
- use the same vehicle every day;
- clean and disinfect the vehicle at the start and end of each shift, especially where it needs to go in for maintenance and a mechanic will need to drive it;
- consider the need for masks, especially if having to deal with members of the public, and enforce their use;
- provide hand sanitiser in the vehicles and encourage regular use by the occupants;
- consider the particular needs of any vulnerable employees e.g. those undergoing any medical treatment that may have compromised their immune system. What can be done for them? It may be necessary to temporarily furlough such staff if they cannot be moved to other jobs that present a much lower risk of infection; they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to continue in their normal role if to do so would present an unacceptable risk of contracting what, for them, could be a very serious illness.
Doubtless, there will be other ideas, but these might be appropriate in the right situation. The point is that the risk needs to be properly assessed and reasonable controls that recognise the risk but deal with it an appropriate way need to be put in place. A failure to act, or actions that go too far, can be counterproductive.
Stay home if possible, but always stay safe and well.
Andrew Ashford is a health and safety practitioner, trainer and former barrister who specialises in health and safety law and risk management.