In the UK, locked-down families across the country have spent the last few Thursday evenings on their doorsteps, clapping loudly. This applause is a rousing show of solidarity and support for the NHS and the many doctors, nurses and support staff that are risking their lives during the coronavirus outbreak.

Recent Google doodles (those Google logo animations that celebrate significant dates and historical figures) have also recognized the contribution of many key workers, including hospital staff, grocery workers and bus drivers.

One group, however, has received less recognition, despite being at the forefront of the struggle against COVID-19:  namely, cleaners.

Are cleaners at risk?

According to research carried out by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19) can survive on certain surfaces for up to 3 days.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the virus remained "viable" on stainless steel and plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours

Commercial cleaners, many of whom are still active during the lockdown, may be more exposed to the risk of contracting the virus than was previously thought.

Operating mainly in empty premises in the evening and at weekends, many cleaners and their employers will have underestimated the risk of exposure.

Official Government guidelines state that tradespeople working alone and those providing a community service are safe to continue to work. Domestic cleaners, who can therefore still work as long as they observe the two-metre social distancing rules, are similarly at risk.

The risk is increasing

Data from the WHO and other sources also suggest that “viral load” is a factor that may determine how serious COVID-19 symptoms are. This means the more you are exposed, the worst the effects of the virus could be.

More companies are stepping up their efforts at workplace sanitation, and require more frequent cleaning. This heavier workload must be borne by fewer cleaners, as the workforce is reduced through sickness, self-isolation and the home care requirements of children and elderly relatives.

Can a cleaner refuse to work during the pandemic?

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that workers have the right to refuse to work if they believe that they are in immediate danger. Workers cannot be fired for exercising this right.

Although employees technically have the right to refuse to work when in danger, whether an employer will recognize this (or will even be aware of Section 44) is another matter.

In addition, many cleaners are self-employed, part-time or agency workers.  Due to their financial circumstances, simply quitting is not an option. Many lower-paid, self-employed or zero-hours contract workers don’t qualify for Statutory Sick Pay or Employment Support Allowance. Universal Credit may now be an option for the self-employed, but a typical 5-week wait for first-time claimants makes it financially unviable for many.

Whatever the legal rights, the practical consequences of not earning a wage inevitably outweigh the risk of infection.

What should employers do?

Under UK law, employers have a legal duty of care to carry out regular Health and Safety risk assessments. What counts as “regular” depends on the situation. Even if there are no changes to an employee’s role or working environment, checks must be carried out to ensure standards are being maintained. Checks must also confirm that equipment is being used correctly, and is in good working order.

When something does change, a fresh assessment should be carried out promptly. This assessment will review whether current practices remain fit for purpose under the changed conditions.

For cleaners, it is hard to imagine a more significant change to their work than the coronavirus pandemic. As the studies show, the contagious and potentially fatal virus can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours.

It is critical that employers urgently risk-assess their staff’s level of exposure to coronavirus. Companies must also act to protect at-risk cleaners quickly, by providing suitable training and protective equipment (PPE) if required. Job rotation would be another option to reduce the risk of infection, but this may be impractical for an understaffed, overstretched company to manage.

Continual risk assessments

The guidance on coronavirus has changed and evolved considerably in recent weeks. As more is learned, the advice is very likely to continue to change.

The UK government advice currently allows cleaners to work. The guidelines do not recommend that additional PPE like face masks be worn by all cleaning staff, but this may change. The current advice does state that face masks may be appropriate in certain settings.

Under these conditions, employers must remain aware of the evolving situation and must carry out additional assessments as appropriate. It is unlikely that having carried out a single assessment a month ago will be sufficient given what we now know about coronavirus, and what we will learn tomorrow.

Listen, respect opinions and respond

Whether you are an employer, employed as a cleaner, or self-employed, communication remains a critical health and safety tool.

Employers and businesses must recognize what essentially amounts to heroism on the part of cleaners, who are evidently risking their health to provide an undervalued but essential service.

This recognition must go beyond platitudes, however. Risk assessments should be carried out openly, in a consultative manner to show employees that their concerns are being taken seriously. The cost of sourcing and supplying additional PPE, even if it is not (currently) required under government guidelines, should be weighed against the benefit of clearly responding to workers’ concerns and fears with action.