Managing COVID-19 in a retail environment – sensible regulation, decent guidance and the power of the meerkat

Elf and safety' often gets a bad press. Sometimes this is deserved (when it's poorly constructed or too late to be of any use), but often it's not

Managing COVID-19 in a retail environment – sensible regulation

Sometimes this is deserved (when it’s poorly constructed or too late to be of any use), but often it’s not ‘ it gets a bad rep simply because the rules are misunderstood and it’s easier to kick out against it than figure it out.

In fact, ‘elf and safety laws do a myriad of good things in a retail environment; they keep us safe from chemicals used in the workplace and prevent us slipping over when the floors have been cleaned. They make employers provide loos and drinking water. They ensure the food we eat in the canteen or from the cafe next door is safe and that forklift trucks in the yard won’t run us over because they are driven sensibly by people who know how.

Does ‘elf and safety’ really deserve a bad press?

The changing face of regulation

My whole career has been involved in regulation and law. Whether enforcing it on the front line, training others in how to apply it or advising Ministers on what’s needed in the future. I’m a naturally compliant person who probably should have joined the Police.

Nearly thirty years ago, my fellow Environmental Health Officers and I would enforce health and safety in retail premises with clipboard in hand, files under the arm and a stern look on the face. All rather draconian. Roll on three decades and the way regulators operate now is remarkably different, thank goodness.

Broadly speaking, a regulator’s job when inspecting a retail premises is to make sure that the business is complying with the laws relevant to them and by doing so is keeping people safe.

If a business hasn’t quite got there, the regulator will decide how best to help them arrive. This could be anything from a conversation explaining what’s needed and why, or signposting to sources of information or pointing out local good practice, right up to enforcement action which could mean serving formal notices or prosecuting. A sensible and proportionate approach is what regulators use.

The most successful of these is usually the explanation. Most retailers are reasonable and when they understand, will do their best to put things right especially when it’s easy or cheap to do so. Peer pressure and practices going on elsewhere in the sector, are also powerful drivers.

An ‘ostrich’ retailer (burying one’s head in the sand) or those exhibiting wilful ignorance or absolute refusal are those most likely to be taken straight to enforcement ‘ and beware, the penalties can be harsh.

COVID-19 ‘ the new ‘elf and safety’ challenge

COVID-19 is a new health and safety challenge that has arrived in our lives at work, in the home and even in the hairdressers.

COVID-19 is the new health and safety issue in the workplace and a COVID-19 risk assessment is the key legal requirement of a retailer. 

The risk COVID-19 poses has made our governments respond quickly and it’s made ‘civic police’ out of us all ‘ especially my mum ‘ who has become a meerkat of our high street, looking for offenders. 

Government has introduced a mix of legislation and guidance swiftly to help retailers get to grips with what’s needed. 

Inevitably, the government’s guidance has gaps (one size doesn’t fit all) and quite rightly, trade organisations have stepped forward to fill those gaps by providing tailored support and guidance for their sectors. 

This Retail Guide, provided by Business Companion, is an example as it pulls together in one place, all the government’s key messages that are relevant to retail environments ‘ plus it adds other helpful tips and signposting too ‘ all of which will help you in your task.

Using this Retail Guide will also flag the things that you may not have thought of ‘ how to minimise the risk in breakout areas, when receiving deliveries and from ventilation systems; what’s the difference between face coverings and PPE and how to deal with a customer who won’t (or can’t) play by the rules on your premises.

Some businesses I’ve worked with over the years glaze over at the prospect of doing a risk assessment until they understand that it’s common sense (and the clue is in the name). 

‘Risk assessment’ is an assessment of the risks. And then doing something about them.

In other words, asking yourself ‘what are the risks presented by COVID-19 and what do I need to do to make things safer’ (for my customers, visitors and delivery drivers).  

Having made a good job of the COVID-19 risk assessment it will be obvious that making more space between people is a priority and that social distancing measures (by managing queues and having floor tape in place, screens at tills etc.) are just some of the practical steps that need to be taken to minimise the risk.

Retailers are getting it right

Regulators (be they the Police, Environmental Health Officers or otherwise), have a suite of old and new powers and approaches to use but so far have applied these minimally.

So why the ‘light touch’? Why aren’t regulators rushing out to clamp down on retailers flouting the COVID-19 rules, using powers and penalties and making an example of them? 

Well, quite simply, because the vast majority of retailers are doing their very best to get things right. They are using sensible industry guides to help them do a decent COVID-19 risk assessment – and they’re succeeding. And the regulators know it, so there’s no need for anything more.

Retailers with a Primary Authority partner may be even better prepared, having had the support of a dedicated regulator

It’s also because most retailers are good people (and responsible businesses) who understand the health and safety risks presented by COVID-19 (46,000 deaths in the UK and counting) and they want to do the right thing. 

The high street meerkats (especially the ones who use social media) are a recent and very helpful part of the landscape, particularly when, as time goes on, enthusiasm for maintaining standards may start to wane…

COVID-19 measures are usually quick and relatively cheap to implement, everyone is doing it, everyone knows why businesses are doing it, everyone shares in the gratitude of businesses which do it and those who don’t do it will see their reputations diminished by the meerkats.

The regulator may never have to be involved.

This is risk assessment in action. It’s ‘elf and safety. It’s a good thing.

Helen Buckingham
Helen Buckingham

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