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COVID-19 and personal protective equipment: What you need to know

Employers across all sectors including retail and transport have been turning their minds to how best to protect the health of their workers who are…

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for those working in healthcare and community settings. In addition, employers across all sectors including retail and transport have been turning their minds to how best to protect the health of their workers who are at potential risk of being exposed to COVID-19 whilst engaged in work activities.

The Government’s advice on frequent hand washing will help to reduce the spread of infection but there are circumstances where additional measures are required.

When considering such additional measures, organisations should firstly think about how the need for PPE can be minimised, through physical barriers, social distancing or restricting the numbers of staff who are required to come into work.

If there is still a residual risk that staff may come into contact with persons who may be infected with COVID-19, an assessment based on the risk of exposure should be conducted to decide what PPE should be issued to staff.

It is also important that staff are trained in how to put on and remove such PPE and that such training is recorded. Staff should also be informed about how frequently PPE should be replaced and how it should be disposed of. In addition, care should be taken to ensure that staff (or their families) who have COVID-19 symptoms are asked to self-isolate at home.

The PPE requirements will vary depending upon the assessment of risk and a review should be undertaken of the guidance which has been published by the UK Government to help control the spread of infection in different workplace environments.

Healthcare setting 

Within the healthcare setting, the PPE guidance issued by the government can be summarised in broad terms as follows:

  • Non respiratory procedures involving patients not suspected of having COVID-19: disposable plastic apron (or fluid resistant gown when apron inadequate/risk splashing), disposable plastic gloves, face/eye protection (if there is a risk of contamination to the eyes from splashing secretions).
  • Care of patients with possible/confirmed COVID-19:
    • Entry to relevant area but no patient contact: fluid resistant surgical mask.
    • Within 1 metre of such a patient: disposable gloves, plastic apron, fluid resistant surgical mask, disposable eye protection (based on risk assessment).
    • High risk areas (Aerosol Generating Procedures conducted): disposable gloves, plastic apron, FFP3 respirator, disposable eye protection.
    • Aerosol Generating Procedures (any setting): disposable gloves, disposable gown, FFP3 respirator, disposable eye protection.

One of the main challenges with COVID-19 is understanding when a surgical mask or FFP3 respirator should be worn. Public Health England has produced guidance in relation to this decision-making process. Fit testing should be conducted by someone who is properly trained to fit FFP3 respirators.

There has been a great deal of publicity about the shortages of appropriate PPE for workers in the healthcare sector. It is noted in this regard that NHS trusts owe duties of care to their staff and the patients in their care. It is therefore essential that care and treatment is provided by staff who have the appropriate level of PPE for the task they are undertaking.

Non-healthcare setting 

In terms of the PPE required in a non-healthcare setting, the guidance available from the Government is focussed upon general infection control measures such as hand washing and social distancing, as opposed to guidance relating specifically to workplace PPE. The Health and Safety Executive have issued guidance on face fit testing for respirators but we are unaware of any specific guidance about whether employers should be asking their workers in a non-healthcare setting to wear additional PPE.

The World Health Organisation has recently confirmed its advice not to wear face masks unless you are ill or you are caring for someone who is sick. Reference has been made to the worldwide shortages of PPE and the fact that supplies should be directed towards the healthcare workers who are most at risk of exposure to COVID-19. There also seems to be some disagreement amongst infectious disease experts about the effectiveness of face masks in controlling the spread of COVID-19 with some experts advising that they offer very limited protection and others indicating that they can be appropriate in crowded places when social distancing is difficult to achieve. Respirators are, however, considered unnecessary unless there is the potential risk of exposure to respiratory aerosols.

Employers should consider the circumstances in which their workers might come into close contact with someone who may have COVID-19 and assess what additional PPE is appropriate. First aiders for example, may be called upon to attend to injured colleagues and certain industries may require certain activities to be carried out by two workers (for example, manual handling tasks). In such circumstances regard should be had to the guidance which has been issued to the healthcare sector and consideration given to what additional PPE might be reasonably practicable for such workers.

The guidance on PPE and COVID-19 is being updated frequently as we learn more about the virus and how it is spread and therefore organisations are advised to keep abreast of the guidance and revisit their risk assessments on a regular basis during the pandemic.

If the content of this update raises any issues for you, or you would like to discuss, please liaise with Anna Naylor, Principal Associate at anna.naylor@weightmans.com.

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