Employer responsibility for health and safety has traditionally started once employees cross the threshold into the workplace – but with public transport deemed a particular risk for coronavirus transmission, the responsibility of employers to ensure their people can safely travel to and from work is now under the spotlight.
Lockdown changed the shape of the commute overnight, forever. Millions of people are working from home and there’s a schism between the public and public transport. As more businesses reopen, what the ‘new normal’ will become for the journey to work is far from clear. However, what we do know is that businesses will, more than ever before, need to better understand their employees’ journeys to and from work.
In this factsheet we explore the latest information, signpost key guidance, identify the issues that businesses need to consider and share some of the ways that businesses are addressing these challenges.
What’s the latest information and insight?
UK government return to work travel guidance
There are three principal documents that the UK government has produced to help businesses and commuters.
1) Safer transport guidance for transport operators and organisations - Safer working principles and risk assessment for transport operators and organisations’
2) Safer travel guidance for passengers - Walking, cycling, and travelling in vehicles or on public transport during the coronavirus outbreak'
The government have also produced a ‘safer travel guidance for passengers' infographic.
The government was advising to work from home whenever possible. From 1 August 2020 that guidance changed to say:
- "Working safely - from 1 August, this may be working from home, or within the workplace if COVID-secure guidelines are followed closely"
Up until 17 July government guidance was to avoid travel by public transport. On 17 July the guidance changed to say:
- "You can help control coronavirus and travel safely by walking and cycling, if you can. Where this is not possible, use public transport or drive."
3) Travel guidance for employers - As part of the wider Safer Transport Campaign the government have also produced resources for employers to communicate the guidance with employees and partners.
The key messages are:
- Enable workers to continue to work from home where possible
- Help your workers to walk and cycle as much as they can
- Encourage travel outside of peak hours
- Help workers to plan their route
- Consider providing alternative transport if possible.
Note that there are differences between the specific guidance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland although the main threads are similar. See Further Information for links to their respective information hubs.
The government has also announced measures to encourage people to choose other forms of transport, including £2 bn for cycling, and the acceleration of e-scooter trials across the country.
The government is looking at measures to get more people commuting by bike with initiatives such as the Cycle to Work scheme to help with the cost of bikes, including e-bikes.
Risk assessment guidance
All businesses require a coronavirus risk assessment, even if they are continuing to operate or before restarting their operations.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has produced guidance on how a coronavirus risk assessment can be undertaken for a range of work settings.
This also includes advice on precautions to take where travel is required in a work setting. For example, those sectors that are working in, visiting or delivering to other people’s homes or factories, plants and warehouses dealing with transporting goods.
Health and Safety Executive guidance
- HSE have produced guidance to help you work safely (be COVID-secure) and manage the risk associated with running your business at this time
- The main HSE guidance on Managing risks and risk assessment at work is found here.
All existing non-coronavirus related health and safety requirements continue to apply.
In simplistic terms:
- Cycling and walking are relatively low risk.
- Cars are low risk for individual households. Risk increases if households are mixed.
- In taxis there are the risks of contaminated surfaces and multiple occupancy
- With trains and buses there is risk of contaminated surfaces as well as aerosol/droplets. Risk increases with the duration of the journey, levels of overcrowding and frequency of passenger movements.
In terms of mitigation:
- Social distancing, good ventilation, personal hygiene, avoidance of crowded spaces and regular cleaning of potentially contaminated surfaces all reduce risk
- Risk is much lower outside than within enclosed spaces
- Employers need to consider employees from all strands of diversity (i.e. all protected characteristics) in their risk assessment in preparation for the return to the office so that all concerns are heard and can be addressed. A Public Health England report found the risk is “disproportionate” for those from black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups.
- Face coverings on public transport are compulsory as of 15 June in England and 22 June in Scotland with fines for non-compliance.
- Exceptions: very young children, people with disabilities, and those with breathing difficulties
- Evidence suggests wearing face covering offers some – albeit limited – protection against the spread of the virus
- Regulatory changes mean people can be refused travel on buses and trains, as well as fined up to £100, if they don’t comply. Transport operators and British Transport Police will enforce this.
- The government has published advice on how to make and wear a face covering
- Face coverings should be removed if asked to do so by a police officer or other relevant person
- It is advised that hands should be washed or sanitised before and after touching a face covering and for longer journeys more than one face covering should be taken and a plastic bag for used face coverings.
Whilst the law requiring use of face coverings on public transport applies in England and Scotland in Wales, and Northern Ireland their use is only recommended. Therefore, if travelling in between UK nations it will be important to adhere to wearing a face covering where required.
Understanding the virus and what this means for travelling to work
To mitigate risk, businesses need to understand virus transmission. The evidence base continues to grow. The SAGE report ‘Environmental Influence on Transmission SAGE – Environmental and Modelling Group’ provides a good baseline.
- Surface contacts are likely to be the most significant transmission route.
- Transmission depends on both the amount of virus present and the duration and method of exposure (contaminated surfaces or aerosol/droplets)
- Occupant density indoors is a key factor in transmission
- Exposure to cough is theoretically significantly riskier than exposure to someone talking
- The probability of infection increases as the exposure increases (proximity is a factor)
- The risk of short-range transmission through aerosol/droplets decreases with distance.
Commuting patterns before coronavirus impacted
Many businesses won’t have detailed maps of their employee’s daily commutes. However, the UK has world leading statistics on travel patterns captured by ONS (Office for National Statistics). The ONS has produced a useful orientation on pre-coronavirus travel patterns.
- In most places of work, men are likely to commute for longer than women
- Men are more likely than women to commute by train – a possible mode of transport for long commutes
- Women tend to undertake shorter journeys to work, accounting for more than half (55%) of commutes lasting 15 minutes
- For all commuters, journeys are most likely to last 15 minutes or less and least likely to last more than an hour
- The car is the most equal and the most popular form of transport; it accounts for two-thirds of all commutes by both men and women respectively
- Cycling is among the most unequal ways of commuting, with men accounting for 74% of those who cycle to work.
Those with longer commutes are the least likely to have viable alternatives to public transport and are much more likely to be male.
Considerations for businesses
Communicate the official government guidance on travel to staff
It’s recommended that you share the government’s Coronavirus (COVID-19): safer travel guidance for passengers with staff. Business can innovate in how best to convey the employer guidance including – sharing the direct link, internal briefings and infographics. Sharing the guidance will also provide an opportunity for conversations about any concerns or specific risks that employees have.
Undertake workforce planning
Make workforce travel plans before your workers return to work
Development of workforce travel plans has formed part of the sustainability agenda for some time. These plans should now be pivoted to understand workers’ travel patterns (or created where they don’t exist already).
There are now tools that use employee postcodes to provide organisations with insights to make informed decisions on their employees commuting problems. Other software service solutions enable employers to send personal travel plans with options ranked in order of maximum social distancing to help workers make informed decisions, such as by switching to walking.
Employers will need to build up a map of their staff’s commutes and consider interventions based on the insight. Determine if there are any workers that cannot meet the social distancing guidelines by walking, running, cycling or driving to work. Or in other words ‘Who cannot avoid public transport?’
Protect workers arriving at and leaving the workplace
When arriving at and leaving the workplace, there may be occasions when workers are in the same space or are using entrances and exits at the same time. There may be known bottlenecks. You should consider opportunities to reduce risk in these situations.
Businesses may consider:
- Staggering arrival and departure times where possible to reduce crowding on routes to and from the workplace
- Reducing queues, for example by having more entry points to the workplace
- Providing more storage for workers for clothes and bags
- Managing queues, for example through floor markings, signs and introducing one-way flow at entry and exit points, considering the impact on public spaces, and working collaboratively with other operators and local authorities
- Providing hand sanitation at building entry/exit points and not using touch-based security devices (such as keypads)
- Reviewing workplace access points and entry requirements (for example deactivating turnstiles requiring pass checks in favour of showing a pass to security personnel at a distance). Organisations need to make sure that alternative checks provide the same level of security
- Limiting passengers in business vehicles (for example, work minibuses), leaving seats empty
- Collaborating with other organisations that share the premises to minimise people on site
- Assigning fixed groups of workers to the same transportation routes where sole travel is not possible
- Providing additional safe facilities for runners/walkers/cyclists as well as alternative means of transport such as coaches.
Make timely business interventions
- Invested to enable more people to work effectively from home
- Provided ongoing education and training, including on hygiene and the benefits of well-ventilated spaces
- Consulted widely with their workforces and trade union representatives
- Re-deployed clinically vulnerable people into roles where they can work from home
- Not compelled employees to commute
- Been mindful of the concerns of at risk groups including those shielding, of BAME ethnicity or within higher risk categories – see Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19
- Provided support for workers around mental health and wellbeing
- Augmented facilities – shower, sanitizer on arrival, bicycle storage, etc
- Increased the attractiveness of cycle to work schemes
- Explored lift sharing options
- Provided dedicated transport, where they assess it to achieve better social distancing outcomes than was otherwise possible
- Supplied staff with face coverings (although not a business requirement)
- Developed targeted communication plans and travel planning resources to help workers risk manage their commute.
Only use public transport if necessary
Public transport represents a different order of infection risk to all other modes of transport. On 17 July 2020 the government moved from advising against all but essential use of public transport to permitting a more general use:
- "You can help control coronavirus and travel safely by walking and cycling, if you can. Where this is not possible, use public transport or drive"
- Use of face coverings is mandated in England and Scotland and recommended in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Social distancing rules are impacting capacity and profitability of public transport operators.
- Rail and bus companies are not profitable at the passenger flows that can be delivered under the social distancing rules
- Operators are being asked to sustain or raise service frequently and this is accelerating the financial challenge. For example, from 18 May Network Rail introduced around 3,000 more trains per day. However, passenger carrying capacity, with social distancing in place, remains very constrained with the ability to carry only around 10-13% of normal levels
- The government is supporting the sector.
Rail guidance to commuters is:
- Travel during off-peak hours if you can
- Buy your ticket online. Visit National Rail Enquiries or your train company website
- Check train times and live information before you travel
- Allow extra time to make your journey by train.
It’s clear that those with no alternative to commuting using public transport will face journey times of longer and more unpredictable duration.
Businesses will have to plan for this with increased flexibility on start and end times, seek to avoid a need for travel during ‘rush hour’ and review expectations of hours present at the workplace.
Plan for staff using face coverings on public transport
With face coverings now mandatory for public transport, employers will need to provide guidance to staff on the storage and care of those items within the workplace. Government guidance states ‘It is important to use face coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and taking them off.’
Businesses will need to think through the best practice and staff training they want to implement at their place of work for face coverings worn by staff on public transport:
- Staff need to know that before and after handling the mask (to put it on, adjust or take it off), to practice proper hand hygiene — EVERY TIME — to reduce the cross-contamination risk. The outside of the mask is considered dirty
- Staff will need to store the mask every time they take it off - a paper bag or zipper bag if a paper bag is not available – and know to store the mask in a clean place and never in a purse or pocket
- Staff need to be reminded not to touch the outside of their mask when it is on their face. Do not pull your mask below your chin while you're wearing it. Leaving the mask dangling or improperly fitted creates opportunities for cross-contamination.
Note that there are currently some differences in the mandating of face coverings on public transport between the devolved nations with Wales and Northern Ireland having different approaches.