Legal rights and coronavirus: protective measures and equipment for supermarket workers

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With the effects of the coronavirus continuing to impact our daily lives, particularly for those classed as key workers, workplace injury solicitor Ross Whalley discusses supermarket store workers’ legal rights and coronavirus, looking at the protective measures and equipment which should be considered.

We are more reliant than ever on the National Health Service. Our health and care workers are putting themselves in danger every day to keep the country as safe and healthy as possible.

It is right that there is considerable media focus on the protections for NHS and care home staff. However, we must not also forget the practical health and safety protections which should be afforded to other keys workers, such as supermarket and other retail staff, who are playing a vital role in this time of national crisis. In circumstances where businesses seek continuity through the pandemic, employers remain duty-bound to consider and reduce the risks of their workforce’s evolving roles.

What protections can employers offer supermarket workers?

Following the nationwide lockdown announced by the government on 23 March, only essential businesses should remain open. Supermarkets as well as pharmacies, petrol stations, newsagents and banks, are defined as essential and so may remain open.

Protections that all supermarkets and retail establishments should be considering for their employees include:

  • Limiting customer numbers
    Supermarket workers come into contact with hundreds of people every day. Employers should consider limiting the number of customers in a store at any one time, likewise requesting that customers shop alone if possible and buy only what they need. Many have now limited customer capacity operating one-in one-out rules for customers.
  • Consider opening times
    Some supermarkets are operating reduced hours with stores closing early. However, care should be taken for workers with this step as it may lead to increased crowding during opening times, likewise difficulties for key worker customers obtaining their essential groceries. An increase in home delivery availability would hugely reduce the number of people coming into contact with each other around supermarkets as well as for employees and many supermarkets have been trying to employ more people to increase their delivery capacity.
  • Improve security
    The current pandemic has caused dramatic changes in customer behaviour; panic buying, stockpiling and abuse to workers. Supermarkets should consider increasing security in each store to protect employees from physical and verbal abuse.
  • Social distancing
    Supermarket employers need to implement and enforce social distancing around the store, in the checkouts and in the queues to enter stores. Marking out distancing points on store floors is a useful physical indicator.
  • Increase rest breaks
    Given the increased customer demand on supermarket goods, many supermarket staff will be feeling increased physical and psychological strain, especially those warehouse workers and shelf stackers to whom heavy manual handling will be repetitive and significant in overall quantity.
  • Adequate training
    Tesco have recently announced an influx of 45,000 members of temporary staff and other major supermarkets have been recruiting in large numbers or moving staff from other areas of the organisation. Care should be taken to ensure all staff are appropriately trained in manual handling techniques and follow the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 to protect themselves, colleagues and customers from injury.
  • Increase hygiene
    Employees should be encouraged to wash their hands regularly and request that customers pay by card and contactless whenever possible. Hand sanitiser dispensers can be installed at flashpoints such as checkouts, store entrances and toilets as well as in staff only areas. Employers should also put in place rigorous cleaning protocols for all store floors and fixtures.
  • PPE
    Staff should be provided with appropriate PPE. Such protection is often seen as a last resort where other control mechanisms fail. Coronavirus has proved to be so contagious that supermarkets should make available gloves, face masks, visors and install checkout screens to protect staff further.
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