The Scottish Government has published its route map out of lockdown, legislating five levels, each imposing increasingly tougher restrictions. As at 19 July, the whole of Scotland moved to Level 0, with cautious optimism that most legal restrictions might be removed entirely in August. However, in the meantime, the move to Level 0 does not mean that everything returns to how it was pre-pandemic – there will remain a level of restrictions and compliance points that must be met.
COVID-19 advice for farms and those in the rural sector
As we continue on the Scottish Government's route map and more businesses reopen, those operating on farms and in the rural sector will experience a different set of challenges than those in, for example, the retail sector. As we look forward, it is vital that farmers and others working in this sector remain vigilant of the potential risks. Employers and business owners must ensure they are implementing the correct controls as an important part of the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Taking appropriate COVID-19 measures requires a business to be aware of the current and frequently updated guidance that is put in place by the government, ensuring that all necessary measures are introduced to mitigate the risk of transmission. Individual responsibility is key, but this will also be backed up inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
To combat this risk, every organisation should revisit and update their COVID risk assessment. This involves consideration of now familiar phrases such as social distancing, good hand hygiene, and good ventilation.
The types of matters the COVID-19 risk assessment ought to cover (and which will likely remain as matters of good practice even once legal restrictions ease further) include:
- Cleaning schedules. Consider introducing revised cleaning schedules, altered working patterns and reasonable measures to ensure physical distancing.
- Physical distancing. There will be circumstances, especially on a farm, where reasonable measures simply cannot be introduced. The risk assessment should give proper consideration to what alternative measures might look like, such as reducing the number of people working in a particular area.
- Use of machinery. If possible, you might be able to allocate one vehicle to one worker. If that is not be feasible, can you arrange operations to ensure machinery is being used by as few workers as possible?
- Air flow. The general message from the HSE regarding ventilation is that there should be good air flow and ventilation in all enclosed spaces. Does your risk assessment properly engage with that issue?
In addition, it is not just your own employees to consider; there might also be contractors, hauliers, engineers and others who you will have a duty of care towards while they are on site. Thought should be given to limiting the number of visitors on site at any one time, especially indoors where the risk of transmission is said to be greatest.
COVID-19 considerations for farm shops and accommodation
Due to diversification of business in the rural sector, many businesses will operate farm shops, cafes, or other outdoor activities or accommodation. Businesses must be aware that what is suitable for the farming environment may not be suitable for an ancillary customer-focused environment.
Some businesses have moved to selling their produce online in order to limit the amount of physical interaction with customers. However, where physical interaction is unavoidable, the following may be considered:
- Using floor markers to help people social distance, or creating new pathways to keep people apart when entering and leaving.
- Staggering arrival times for check-in or activities.
- If you are providing accommodation, have you implemented COVID-19 secure check-in arrangements? Campsite operators may want to consider measuring out socially distant pitches and clearing designated access routes.
Broader health and safety considerations
It must also be recognised that these COVID-19-specific measures are in addition to all other health and safety measures that a business would ordinarily adhere to.
And for livestock, despite social distancing and the difficulties presented by COVID-19, there is no relaxation in statutory testing. The Scottish Government guidance is quite clear that provided you can put in place coronavirus-secure measures, and can comply with all other standard health and safety requirements, statutory testing should continue. If sampling or testing is impossible due to COVID-19 constraints, herds will be identified as overdue for the statutory test.
Although the HSE may be prepared in the first instance to offer advice and guidance to businesses on managing the risk of coronavirus, businesses should be under no illusion that formal action can and will be taken if the risk is not being properly managed. This may include issuing enforcement notices or the threat of prosecution.
The risk of enforcement action by the HSE is also greater than you might first think. It has previously been reported that the HSE is conducting around 2,000 workplace checks a day. The cost of getting it wrong can be significant, as the courts continue to hand out substantial fines to businesses that are successfully prosecuted for health and safety failings.
If you require any advice on this topic, please get in touch with Kevin Clancy, Partner in our commercial disputes team, at firstname.lastname@example.org, Stephanie Hepburn, Senior Associate in our rural disputes team, at email@example.com, or your usual Shepherd and Wedderburn contact.
For further information, please see our recent webinar on health and safety in the rural sector, available to view on demand here.