In this article, Jörg Bakschas explores guidelines for returning to the workplace and shares insights on how employers are likely to be affected.
The COVID -19 pandemic still has a strong impact on our economic and private lives, even after several months. People all over the world are longing for the old normality, which will probably not exist in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the economy is of course pushing for a re-start so that companies can survive the crisis. The situation is very different between individual European countries and must be adapted to the respective conditions and requirements of the governments.
However, entrepreneurs have a duty to protect their employees everywhere. In this situation, which is completely new to them, they are looking for help in the form of guidelines for returning to work. This would give them legal guidance with their decisions.
Guidelines versus directives
A guideline is a recommended instruction without a legal requirement and does not refer to individual situations. By comparison, a directive is an official instruction and therefore binding. Due to the current state of knowledge about Coronavirus, it is not currently possible to create directives on returning to work because information on Coronavirus and associated health protection is developing dynamically. New studies become known almost daily, but in most cases, they are not yet completed or not sufficiently scientifically validated.
Therefore, since the outbreak of the pandemic, organisations such as the WHO, the EU and national institutions have always ‘only’ issued guidelines. In principle, these guidelines are constantly updated as knowledge evolves.
The “EU Guideline for the Safe Return to Work” of 24.4.2020 covers the following areas:
- Risk assessment and appropriate measures
- Involvement of employees
- Care for employees who have been ill
- Planning and learning for the future
- Up to date information on current developments
- Information for specific industries and professions
Does the update of the EU guideline on 3.6.2020 also relate to office work?
The press reported that the EU rules were updated on 3.6.2020. However, this refers to the fact that the Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was included in the list of biological agents. Therefore the “Biological Agents Directive” was updated.
It serves the safety and health of employees in activities involving biological agents and provides additional protection for all employees – especially those who work directly with the virus in hospitals, industry and laboratories.
So, for office workers, the previous “recommendations” remain in place, although new findings have led to a discussion about aerosol contamination, which is particularly prevalent in enclosed spaces. According to these recommendations, maintaining a minimum distance from each other is still of utmost importance. How large this distance is to be maintained is determined differently from country to country. Usually it is 1.5 to 2 meters, which must also be kept in the office environment.
What employers should do now
The ultimate responsibility for adequate protection against infection therefore lies with the employer. The measures for infection protection must be adapted to the individual operational conditions. This works best on the basis of a risk assessment (in Germany according to §5 ArbSchG). This involves examining the individual conditions in the company for risks. This can then be used to develop the right measures for the organisation, the work and the individual employees.
The easiest thing would be to avoid a hazard in general. Since this is not possible in a normal office environment, the EU guideline stipulates that employers should allow office work to take place “in the home office if possible”. However, if they are to return to the workplace, multiple occupancy of rooms should generally be avoided if the protective distances cannot be maintained.
In the first step, technical protective measures such as partitions, screens and hand disinfection measures can be set up. The permanent disinfection of door handles, switches and other surfaces by appropriate personnel is also part of these measures.
In the second step, we then move on to organisational measures such as using space in shifts to generate distances through empty workstations. Depending on the individual situation, larger distances can also be achieved by changes in the layout. Depending on the design of the office landscape, this could be achieved, for example, by rotating personally assigned workstations so that employees sit back to back.
The personal measures affect the employees most. First and foremost, these include the use of protective masks for the mouth and nose, which have become part of everyday life in the western world, or protective suits and other protective equipment. Frequent washing and disinfecting of hands should actually be a matter of course.
In general, protective measures must correspond to the respective state of the art in technology, occupational medicine and hygiene as well as to other reliable ergonomic findings. Therefore, the individual operational conditions must always be taken into account when determining protective measures. In view of the dynamic development of the COVID-19 pandemic and conflicting statements by science, it is currently hardly possible to define a “fixed standard”. Therefore, it is recommended to name a “circle of advisors” who should adapt the standards of the company on a daily basis.
Further information on the EU guideline for a safe return to work can be found here.
Jöerg Bakschas is an independent workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker. He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office.
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