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Returning to work in logistics after lockdown

Warehouse shelves

Many in the logistics industry have continued to work throughout the coronavirus crisis, keeping supermarkets and hospitals supplied with essential goods; delivering to the homes of the elderly and others in enforced isolation due to increased health risks. All of us in the industry would applaud their efforts, and we hope that the wider population applaud them too.

However, some companies have been closed down for many months, and only now are contemplating a return. All have a duty to protect their employees, and indeed anyone else, from infection, with what can be an extremely nasty (and potentially fatal) disease.

It is my aim to offer some useful and practical advice to those in this position. It should, however, be noted that most Governments are issuing their own guidance, which will change in time as the situation changes. This guidance should be consulted and followed, and these notes are intended to supplement rather than replace it.

Also, it must be remembered that the relevant law(s) (e.g. Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in the UK) apply equally to this as to any other hazard, and must be adhered to at all times. The fundamental duty of an employer is to reduce workplace risk to the lowest practicable level by taking preventative measures, which must never be forgotten.

If it is not possible to ensure safety whilst carrying out a particular activity, you should not proceed with that activity – it is as simple as that.

Risk assessment

Before anyone returns to work, it is essential to carry out a full risk assessment. It is always good practice to consult widely when doing so, but it is especially so in this case. I would recommend the following steps:

1. Identify the hazards

The main hazard is clearly that of being infected by the virus. However, there may be secondary risks created by the steps you take to prevent this.

2. Who might be harmed, and how?

The obvious answer to the first question is your employees, but there will probably be others. These could include drivers making deliveries to your premises, members of the public if you are making home deliveries and other contractors working on your site. If someone does catch the virus at work, this could be transmitted to others within their household when they return home.

You will need to consider all possibilities. Workers may be socially distanced in the warehouse, but what about the toilets, the canteen and the fork-lift charging area? How will paperwork be handed over? Could the virus spread via a surface in the vehicle refilling area, or on a barcode scanner?

3. Evaluate the risks

This should include an evaluation of the likelihood of an event occurring, and the severity of the consequences if it does. In this case, you should be looking at the chances of infection occurring by each potential method of transmission. The number of occasions each of these occurs must also be taken into account.

For example, consider a home delivery driver. Whilst the probability of each particular person they meet on the doorstep already being infected may be low, there may be a very high probability that they will meet at least one infected person during a week of deliveries. Every delivery must, therefore, be treated as though there is the possibility that the recipient is infected. The consequences may, however, differ between individuals, and additional protection (such as continued paid leave) may be necessary for particularly vulnerable people (seek medical advice if in any doubt). The possibility of secondary infections transmitted to family members must not be forgotten.

4. What precautions will you need to take?

You should normally look first at existing precautions, and decide if these are adequate. However, in this case, additional precautions will almost certainly be necessary. (Practical suggestions follow in the next section.)

5. Communicate and implement findings

Issuing written safe systems of work is recommended. Ensure that they are adhered to at all times. For example, the temptation to allow more than one picker to work in a confined area to meet a scheduled vehicle departure must be resisted – a culture should be instilled such that this would be totally unacceptable. Remember also that communication with some groups, such as people with learning difficulties or limited English, may require particular care.

6. Review regularly

Review your risk assessment regularly. This should happen whenever there is a substantial change (e.g. new government guidelines are issued, or a customer with particular requirements returns to work), and after a set period of time. Update if necessary.

Possible actions

What can you do to prevent infection? You should work out what additional steps can be taken, evaluate them, and choose the best option(s).The list of possibilities is almost endless, but they might include the following:

Keep people away from working areas

It may be possible for some people in the organization to continue to work from home – such as sales or accounts personnel. In addition, movement around the premises should be minimized. It may be normal practice for office personnel to enter the warehouse if they have a stock query, but this will probably need to be prohibited. Only essential personnel should be permitted in any area.

Government guidelines for isolation should be followed

If, for example, a family member living with an employee has shown symptoms then the employee should not come to work. The same applies to those instructed to self-isolate under a government’s track and trace scheme, those under quarantine for a period after travel, and other similar cases. Any worker who falls ill whilst at work should go home immediately.

Testing employees

You might decide to test all employees on arrival each day, by measuring their temperature to detect fever. Specialist equipment is available for this purpose. This should not, however, be assumed to be the only precaution that needs to be taken.

Ensure social distancing

This has been widely publicized but is an important step. Ensure that workers remain the recommended distance apart at all times. To achieve this, you may need to organize differently, e.g.

  • Shift patterns may need to be changed, to reduce the number of people on-site at any one time. Similarly, staggering break times will reduce the number of employees using shared facilities at the same time. 

  • Picking and put-away routines in warehouses may have to be altered. For example, if you currently have several pickers in each zone, the zones may need to be made smaller so that only one is present in each at any one time. Alternatively, zonal picking may be eliminated, each worker moving through the whole picking area, following set routes at a sufficient distance behind the previous worker.

  • Use floor tape and other markings where this will help.

  • Activities such as stock takes may need to be postponed.

  • Include areas such as shipping and receiving bays, packing stations, and toilets and locker rooms: instructing staff to arrive and depart in workwear rather than changing on the premises may be a good idea.

  • If it is essential to have a team of two or more people working together, e.g. if loading large and awkward items, then keep the same teams together.

  • Two or more people travelling in the same vehicle should be avoided if possible. The use of double sleeper cabs should certainly be prohibited.

  • Encourage drivers to remain in their vehicles whilst they are being unloaded, provided it is safe to do so. It should however be remembered that driving away during the loading/unloading process can be very dangerous, and actions to prevent or deter this, such as placing highly visible barriers in front of the vehicle, should be introduced. It may also be necessary to allow drivers to visit welfare facilities.

  • Meetings and training sessions should be held on line where possible, using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or similar software.

  • Additional car and cycle parking may need to be provided to enable employees to avoid public transport.

Contain contamination

Ensure that the virus is not spread via contaminated equipment or surfaces. For example:

  • If possible, allocate equipment to individual workers. Examples might range from artics and fork-lifts to hand pallet trucks, and from Radio Frequency Identification Scanners to tape guns and even pencils. If it is necessary to share, they should be thoroughly cleaned with an alcohol-based sanitizer of an approved type before each use. Durable packaging such as tote boxes should be included in these procedures.

  • Similarly, if surfaces are shared, they should be sanitized between users. This should again include items such as toilet handles and kettles and include use by visiting personnel such as drivers.

  • When receiving goods, ideally these should be quarantined for at least 72 hours before being touched. If not, safe handling must be ensured, e.g. by handling only by use of mechanized equipment. Your risk assessment may conclude that these rules can be relaxed if there is a genuine high level of confidence that the goods are not contaminated, e.g. a consignment of wine from New Zealand which has been sealed inside a container for a month.

Safe interaction

If people do need to interact, this must be done in a safe manner. For example, a supervisor might be handpicking notes to a warehouse operative by placing them on a table to be picked up later. Better still, work practices can be changed, such that the operative prints them directly from the system, or they are sent electronically to a hand-held screen.

Similarly, if a driver is making home deliveries, the goods should preferably be placed on the doorstep for the householder to pick up after the driver has retired to a safe distance.  Collection of signatures and/or cash on delivery should be avoided: payment should be by card, online or by telephone.

Install safety devices and equipment

Examples might include screens to protect people from direct contact, and/or additional hand washing or sanitization stations. Portable versions of the latter are available, some of which can be installed on vehicles. 

Personal protection equipment (PPE)

This should only be considered as a last resort in protection, and other primary methods employed. For example, to fail to ensure social distancing on the grounds that people are wearing masks is unacceptable: the virus can penetrate standard types of masks. However, this does not prevent the use of PPE if your risk assessment concludes that it does provide an additional safeguard in particular circumstances. PPE (including that used for reasons unconnected with COVID-19) should not be shared.

Mental health

The effects of COVID-19 on mental health have been many and varied. Some have relished additional time with their families; others have suffered severe anxiety or depression due to isolation, fear of infection, or the tragic loss of a family member. Cases of addiction to alcohol and gambling have also increased. 

If members of your workforce have been adversely affected, they should be advised to seek appropriate help, from medical practitioners and/or support organizations. Careful and sympathetic handling of such cases is essential at this time.

Conclusion

The worst phase of the COVID-19 crisis may appear to be over, but by no means has the danger passed. Every effort must be made to ensure safety from infection, until the virus is completely eliminated.

If your workforce is returning to work, then following government guidance, conducting a thorough risk assessment, and implementing the necessary actions, are essential parts of your duty to your workforce.

 

Further reading

The UK Government has issued a guidance document entitled Working safely during COVID-19 in factories, plants and warehousesI would strongly recommend consulting this document and following its recommendations.

The Freight Transport Association has also published a useful guide, COVID-19 working Good Practice Guide for logistics.