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Returning to work slowly and safely is the next challenge facing businesses across the UK. From the ones just reopening to those that never closed, this is how companies are ensuring that getting the country working again is as smooth and safe as possible.

We never stopped working – but safety was always our first priority
For factories experiencing unprecedented levels of demand during the lockdown, the supply chain never shut down.

In Widnes, Cheshire, family-owned artisanal food company Spice Kitchen continued to fulfill hundreds of daily orders from a local warehouse unit by introducing additional safety measures, in accordance with government advice.

Managing director Sanjay Aggarwal, 37, co-founded the business with his mother Shashi, 69, in 2012, selling traditional masala dabbas – Indian spice tins – filled with authentic, handmade spice blends.

This May has been their busiest ever online trading period. Sanjay says: ‘Almost overnight, our business went from 90 per cent retail and wholesale to a thriving e-commerce store.

‘When lockdown hit, we were very quiet, so we made the quick decision to furlough all staff until suitable Covid-19 safety procedures were put in place. I kept the supply chain moving steadily by myself, deep cleaned the warehouse, and everything stayed open.

‘The unit itself – where the tins are prepared, packed and distributed – is an open space with high ceilings and good ventilation, but we put down floor markings to encourage two-metre distancing, and created very structured guidance for deliveries and collections, including the use of gloves and safe disposal of packaging.’

As trade picked up, Sanjay assessed the risk to each of his employees, including how to minimise their journey time and any risk they posed to their households, to establish whether it was safe for them to return. Co-founder Shashi remained isolated in Birmingham.

‘Three weeks after lockdown, we hired one full-time apprentice, who lived within walking distance to run our packing operation,’ says Sanjay.

‘Two others have returned for part-time shift work. Separate working spaces allowed us to minimise person-to-person contact but when we communicate, we always wear face masks.’

As for general hygiene within the unit, Spice Kitchen already operates under the strict supermarket-grade food safety management system, SALSA, where handwashing stations and sanitisers are already in place. All of the common touch points within the unit, such as door handles, are cleaned even more regularly than usual.

Sanjay says: ‘Our staff were very much reassured that they would be safe within the unit, and advised on the best ways to minimise their risk outside it. We’re constantly monitoring the guidance and adapting our practices to suit the official guidelines but as a business owner, I never do anything unless I’m confident my staff are well protected.’

Everything is in place for a safe return to site – I feel very confident
Like hundreds of other construction companies advised to return to work safely on May 14, Belfast-based interior fit-out specialists Portview has begun a phased reopening of its UK sites.

In-house occupational health nurse Norma McKibbin, 47, from County Down, Northern Ireland, helped devise and implement their strict new health and safety measures for contractors returning to site for the first time since March 23.

She says: ‘I feel very confident about the return to work. Portview didn’t take the decision lightly: it was a very well-informed, multidisciplinary approach.

‘Every effort has been made for safety, because we know the physical and psychological importance of getting the country going again.’

Coming from an NHS background, Norma was especially well placed to consult on infection control in line with Public Health England and general health and safety. ‘In construction, it’s much harder to control the risk of infection,’ Norma says. ‘There was also different advice affecting England versus Northern Ireland, but so far, we have only reopened the London sites.

‘The first consideration was: who returns to work? Anyone coming to site is now subject to a risk assessment based on a health questionnaire identifying any Covid-19 symptoms, underlying medical conditions or members of their household in a vulnerable category.

‘The second factor was: how? We know that in London, public transport is at the heart of everything, so our advice was to reduce touch points to help minimise transmission, and avoid travelling at peak times. We always recommend wearing face coverings to travel, and being mindful of handwashing.’

As for daily work on site, a stringent new site operating procedure is in place. Norma says: ‘Physical distancing marshalls are assigned to sign in contractors and perform daily temperature checks.

‘Once inside, one-way systems are indicated on the floors and, to avoid congestion, start, finish and lunch times for staff have also been staggered. Any tasks precluding two-metre distancing protocols are done in full personal protective equipment, and limited to less than 15 minutes.’

Finally, to make sure employees feel confident about their return to work, Norma is constantly monitoring their wellbeing.

‘My phone is always on,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, it’s the employees that make an organisation successful, so they have to be well looked after.’