This article was originally published in The Carer on 15 April 2020.

While many are able to revert to working from the safety of their home, care providers are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With outbreaks in care homes across Britain, staff are fighting a daily battle in caring for the elderly and vulnerable. Amidst the usual stressors, those within the sector are now facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), high levels of absenteeism and the difficult challenge of keeping morale high at a time of unrelenting pressure. 

By Nick Wilson, Director of Health & Safety Services

Unsurprisingly, many care workers fear coming into work due to the risk of contracting the virus and taking it home. At the same time, they are the ones trying to hold other families together, dealing with distressed relatives who are anxious about their loved ones. All of this can take an enormous toll on a person’s mental health.

From a health and safety point of view, your first priority will be to prevent anyone within your facility from contracting the disease. With the level of infections on the rise within the care setting, risk assessment has never been so imperative to ensuring the safety of staff, contractors, visitors and residents.

The importance of risk assessment

COVID-19 is a hazard, and as with any hazard in the workplace, it needs to be eliminated where possible. Unfortunately, care providers are not in a position to eradicate the disease – but you can put control measures in place to reduce the risk of it spreading.

In practical terms, this means ensuring that standard operating procedures are in place to deal with individual residents who are suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, as well as implementing appropriate infection control precautions to protect staff and residents. Care homes will have already taken such measures at the beginning of the outbreak, so it is now a case of diligently reviewing these on a regular basis as new information comes to light.

As a health and safety practitioner, my team and I are advising those within the care sector on a daily basis. Our advice centres around risk assessment and, within this, we are directing care providers to:

  • Identify biological risks. This will assist in ensuring your infection control policy is fit for purpose and highlight any areas where additional control measures are required.
  • Identify where and how to apply social distancing rules and reduce close interactions. Examples may include only permitting contractors by appointment, restricting movements to parts of the home, and setting up PPE stations outside residents’ rooms.
  • Undertake documented daily monitoring of employees for signs and symptoms of the virus. This is one of the most effective ways to prevent the virus spreading as it will stop it from entering the home in the first place via employees.

Mental health implications

Of course, while you are busy implementing physical controls to keep people safe, it is essential not to overlook the mental health implications that all of this may have. Working in the care sector is pressure-filled at the best of times, with enormous physical and mental demands. Add in the fear and management of a biological hazard from a global pandemic, and the result is likely to be an intensely stressful working environment. 

Unfortunately, staff now face a number of new, extraordinary pressures, not least the ongoing concerns over PPE provisions, the need to keep up with ever-changing government guidance, and tremendous responsibility for people’s health while being anxious about their own. While you cannot eliminate all fears, support staff by:

  • Encouraging them to express concerns and offering reassurance. This can be as simple as a five-minute chat over a cup of coffee, or a thank you.
  • Encouraging managers not to be too task-focused – ask staff how they are and be interested. Life is messy and unpredictable right now, so be the outlet people need.
  • Minimising distractions, as we all work better when focused. Try not to overload staff with information – stick to the facts. Arrange for bigger, more complicated tasks to be done in the morning where possible.
  • Making sure staff have time to eat and take a break. If possible, provide lunch for your staff so that they can spend their home time resting and with their families. Consider assigning staff a lunch buddy to reduce feelings of isolation or anxiety.
  • Signposting staff to external support, such as Mind, Anxiety UK, the Mental Health Foundation or your own counselling provider.

This is an unprecedented situation and will test UK care providers to their limits – but with the bravery, courage and strength that those within the sector have already shown, we will come out the other side.

Supporting the Care sector through COVID-19

At Ellis Whittam, we understand that care providers are doing their best to navigate through the current pandemic with limited direction. To help you get the answers you need, we’ve created a Coronavirus Advice Hub, where you can find a range of free guidance notes and document templates, including a care-specific risk assessment tailored to your activities and the particular COVID-19 risks you face.

Get access now or, if you would benefit from expert advice, call 0345 226 8393 to find out more about our personalised, fixed-fee Health & Safety and Employment Law services.

ONLINE TRAINING | IOSH Safety for Executives and Directors

Looking to improve your understanding of health and safety, demonstrate your commitment to employee wellbeing, and protect your business from prosecution? Learn essential skills in effective risk management, including how to create a COVID-secure workplace, with this one-day course for business owners, senior managers and directors.

29 September 2020 | 09:00 – 16:30

Director of Health & Safety Services

Nick Wilson

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