Estate agents: Prioritising safety makes great business sense

With an already slow property market, lockdown brought virtually all sales activity in the sector to a halt. Despite government support measures, including the recent stamp duty exemption to incentivise residential buyers, the commercial outlook remains challenging.

Underpinning future success is safety. Get this right and you will win the trust of your employees and customers, which will be vital in readjusting to a “new normal” and overcoming the recession.

Read on to understand the steps you should be taking and the resources available to help you navigate the current situation.

Keeping staff, sellers and buyers safe

COVID-19 is a biological hazard, and like any workplace hazard, it is a legal requirement to carry out a risk assessment and introduce suitable and sufficient control measures that reduce the risk of contracting the virus to as low a level as is “reasonably practicable”.

In other words, you have to balance the level of risk against the measures needed to control the risk in terms of time, money or trouble. It’s impossible to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 completely and that is not what the law requires; it’s about being able to demonstrate that you have taken all sensible, proportionate precautions and have kept a record of this.

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Conduct a robust risk assessment

Step 1: Identify the hazard (COVID-19), the areas and activities in the workplace where there may be a risk of transmission, and who may be harmed and how.

Step 2: Assess the risks and take action. For each hazardous situation and activity identified, consider how likely it is that transmission may occur and the severity of the harm. Consult the government’s guidance on home moving and working safely in other people’s homes during COVID-19, as well as HSE resources.

Step 3: Record the significant findings. To help with this, you can find a free risk assessment template on Ellis Whittam’s Coronavirus Advice Hub.

Step 4: Review your risk assessment on a regular basis and whenever there is a significant change to your business practices or personnel, new or updated government guidance, or if there is reason to believe your controls are no longer effective.

Step 5: Communicate the results to your employees through training and toolbox talks, and to your customers through signage, email and on your website.

Once you have conducted your risk assessment you must implement practical controls to protect anyone who may be affected by your activities. Potential control measures range from eliminating certain activities (for example, can agents predominantly work from home, and could virtual viewings be introduced?), through to administrative controls such as meetings by appointment only, office signage and revised layout for social distancing, and clear instructions on etiquette for buyers and sellers when it comes to viewings and valuations. Display the ‘Staying COVID-19 Secure’ poster in your workplace to show your commitment!

More detailed guidance on the Coronavirus Advice Hub can help you to work through this process step-by-step. Whilst it is a legal requirement to consult with employees on health and safety matters, involving them in your risk assessment process will help to instil confidence and protect against employee complaints.

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Dealing with vulnerable staff and refusals to work

As high street offices reopen and valuations and viewings recommence, staff – particularly those deemed to be clinically more vulnerable, of a certain age, or from the BAME community who it is reported appear to be at greater risk – will be quick to judge how safe it is to return to work, whether that’s in the office or in sellers’ homes.

There is real potential for employees to raise concerns that they do not want to come into work if they do not think it is safe. In doing so they will be protected against suffering any detriment as a result, which would include a refusal to pay the employee if they fail to attend work. The HSE have encouraged people to complain if they are unhappy about working conditions and thousands of complaints across a variety of sectors have already been made.

The key point will be whether the employee holds a “reasonable belief” that they are in serious and imminent danger in the workplace. Whether that belief is reasonably held will depend on:

  • What steps the employer has taken to ensure the health and safety of their employees, particularly those in vulnerable groups;
  • What information has been provided to the employee; and
  • What steps have been taken to reassure the employee that they are not in fact in serious or imminent danger.

If other members of staff willfully ignore health and safety measures, there could be disciplinary issues to consider.

Further detailed guidance on navigating these scenarios is available on the Coronavirus Advice Hub.

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Prioritising safety will support commercial success

These are challenging times requiring business practice and behaviours to change. As an employer, focusing on safety and doing all the right things now will allow you to build a defence to pre-empt any potential issues, leaving you to focus on the right ingredients to rebuild business in the months ahead. Engage staff in the process, clearly communicate to all your stakeholders, including buyers and sellers, and you will increase confidence in doing business.

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Ellis Whittam helps over 17,500 British businesses and organisations to create great, safe places to work through fixed-fee Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety support. 

Download free guides, templates and risk assessments specific to the property industry, as well as further COVID-19 employer support resources, from its Coronavirus Advice Hub.

While all reasonable care has been taken to ensure that the information provided is correct, no liability is accepted by Lloyds Bank for any loss or damage caused to any person relying on any statement or omission. This is for information only and should not be relied upon as offering advice for any set of circumstances. Specific advice should always be sought in each instance.

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While all reasonable care has been taken to ensure that the information provided is correct, no liability is accepted by Lloyds Bank for any loss or damage caused to any person relying on any statement or omission. This is for information only and should not be relied upon as offering advice for any set of circumstances. Specific advice should always be sought in each instance.