In these uncertain times, with the new risks presented by COVID-19 and words like "essential", "non-essential" and "social distancing" becoming the new norm, retail staff find themselves on the frontline of the nation's efforts to address the pandemic.
Yet, with this greater responsibility and given their status as key workers1, those retail staff still working find themselves both at greater risk of contracting the virus and from violence/aggression when dealing with members of the public2. So what responsibilities does an employer have in these circumstances?
What are the risks?
Retail workers in supermarkets and similar businesses are clearly essential during the current pandemic, however, this essential work creates risks for those performing it that the rest of the nation, working from home or furloughed, is not facing.
Risk of contraction
As retail staff are unable to self-isolate given their work involves interaction with the public (unless they show symptoms/care for a vulnerable person), their risk contracting the virus increases.
Risk of violence/aggression
While for the most part the nation has responded with good grace and civility, where nerves are frayed and tempers short, there have been some examples of staff facing abuse and even items being thrown at them.3 Indeed, USDAW has issued a call for respect to be shown to retail and delivery staff at this difficult time.4
We have also recently seen the first example of an individual being charged5, prosecuted and fined6 for breaching the new Health Protection Regulations 2020 by repeatedly approaching members of the public in a supermarket queue, highlighting not just the risks to staff, but also to customers.
Steps to take
The majority of businesses involved will already have risk assessments in place, and will have implemented safety measures based on that assessment7. However, all businesses must be aware of the duty to review a risk assessment in accordance with Regulation 3(3) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 where:
(a) there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid; or
(b) there has been a significant change in the matters to which it relates...
There is no doubt that COVID-19 represents a significant change to the risk landscape. As a result risk assessments should be reviewed, and the findings recorded, to ensure that businesses are complying with their legal duties, specifically whether the business is taking all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees at work and non-employees (in this case customers) affected by the business, as per sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Risk of contraction
We are all becoming familiar with the new measures in place in supermarkets to reduce the risk of infection. These include:
- Shoppers queueing two meters apart to gain access;
- Reducing the number of shoppers in store at any one time;
- Designated routes around the supermarket;
- Till staff behind screens;
- Reduced opening hours; and
- Personal protective equipment for staff.
It will be important that a business confirms its proposed measures are capable of implementation at individual sites, rather than adopt a blanket, one size fits all approach. These will not just need to be implemented but enforced by shop staff. This in itself leads to the potential for violence/aggression.
Risk of violence/aggression
We know that violence/aggression in the industry is a foreseeable risk.8 The incidents referred to above demonstrate that this continues to be an issue, with shop staff bearing the brunt of current frustrations.
When assessing risk in the current climate, consider:
- The type of work undertaken –Are staff expected to limit customers to a number of items which can be purchased? Are they likely to encounter frustration from customers if an item (e.g. toilet roll) is out of stock?
- Are staff lone working? - This may become particularly relevant now the majority of us are at home during the day. Are formerly quiet periods now busy requiring more staff to serve the additional customers? Are more staff needed to enforce social distancing protocols?
- Location – Are reduced opening hours justified?
- Consult with staff – What are staff saying in the current climate? Consistent engagement will allow a clear picture to be provided on a developing situation.
- What are other businesses doing? – Are they implementing additional measures you are not? Consider recording in writing why a step a competitor is taking is not reasonably practicable for you at a particular premises.
- Are current security measures adequate? – Are additional security staff required? Is it worth engaging with your local police to request they adjust patrols to include your premises?
- Reporting – Consistent engagement during this time is key to understanding the ever developing circumstances.
With the landscape constantly evolving, it is vital businesses keep up to date with the latest government guidance. While we are used to reviewing risk assessments every few years, the changing position and advice may mean risk assessments now have to be updated on a more reactive basis.
8 Preventing Violence to Retail Staff – HSE Books 2009
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.