Coronavirus (COVID-19): Safety Office updates and advice

Last updated: 08 July 2020

The University of Oxford Safety Office recognises the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on staff and students across all the University departments.

This web page will be used to share specific updates and advice to departments, so the University is able to maintain a reasonable level of health and safety management throughout the current coronavirus pandemic.

For general information on the University response, and latest updates about COVID-19, please visit the University's main coronavirus webpage.



Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The following FAQs should help departments manage their health and safety through this difficult period.

Please note: we will continue to add new questions and answers in this list, as required.


In an emergency please contact the Oxford University Security Services at 01865 (2)89999

If the incident needs the Safety Office’s input, regardless of where the incident is arising, then Oxford University Security Services (OUSS) will contact a senior officer to assist in coordinating a response.

For non-emergency enquiries please continue to use your local safety officers as far as possible.

Otherwise, please email us at or, if necessary, call us on 01865 (2)70811.

Please note

As the office is currently working remotely, calls to the above number may go to an answerphone or direct to a member of staff. All enquiries will be dealt with as quickly as possible depending on the level of urgency.


The Safety Office will operate in accordance with its own business continuity plans. This means we will try to maintain our normal services. However, as we are currently remote working, these will be prioritised. 

If staff availability significantly drops during the remote working phase, our focus will be on the following:

  • disposal of hazardous waste, with specific priority given to ionising radiation and biological/clinical waste over other types of hazardous waste
  • liaison with emergency services, enforcement and government agencies

Departments are expected to have their own business continuity plans in place and these must consider critical health and safety issues. Some examples are listed below.

Working with reduced staff capacity:

  • ensure there are sufficient and appropriately trained staff to manage foreseeable emergency situations such as: fire evacuation, first aid situations and other foreseeable emergencies that may arise
  • identify the safety critical support you might require from others – eg facilities management teams, estates including DLO, OUSS and other building occupiers – and check whether these services are available
  • ensure there are sufficient and appropriately trained staff to manage contractors who may need entry into the buildings
  • ensure there are sufficient and appropriately trained staff to operate equipment safely or carry out safety critical activities.

    Some examples:

    • autoclaves are often required in containment laboratories to make safe the waste before disposal. They also pose significant risks when operating and need suitably trained staff to do so. If these staff are unavailable, then the associated biological work should cease until trained individuals are available - or alternative arrangements have been agreed with the University Biological Safety Officer
    • similarly, people receiving hazardous materials into the department, especially radioisotopes, require appropriate levels of training. If these people are unavailable, then alternative arrangements must be found in consultation with the relevant University Safety Officer
  • assess lone working arrangements and implications, in particular be aware of any high risk activities where lone working is not permitted
  • consider welfare of those staff who are present (breaks, stress, support) and the activities they are expected to undertake

Closing down buildings:

  • ensure all emergency and call out procedures are up to date, with suitable deputisation, and that Oxford University Security Services (OUSS) have been notified of any updates
  • identify those items of equipment, systems or experiments that can or cannot be safely left unattended
  • determine the activities that will be needed to be undertaken by staff as far as possible to maintain systems and equipment in a safe condition 
  • consider how long it will take to shut down or make safe equipment, experiments and building related systems
  • make secure hazardous substances or hazardous waste, including the need to review restrictions on higher risk items, such as schedule 5 pathogens, toxins or GMMS or radioisotopes. Ensure details of who is trained or authorised to access these items are suitably available in an emergency
  • determine what access is required by external people for regular safety related checks or maintenance (eg fire alarm panels, boilers, lifts) and what needs to be in place to ensure their safety

Please note

Any questions relating to business continuity should initially go to your departmental or divisional point of contact for business continuity planning. If this does not address the concerns, then please contact us.



In line with the phased resumption of University business through the return to on-site working initiative (RTOSW), the University’s Silver Group agreed on 2nd July that the resumption of University business conducted away from University premises can be similarly resumed in a safe and controlled manner which aligns with existing policy on fieldwork and overseas travel. This resumption applies to UK and overseas fieldwork and other business travel such as conferences and business meetings. 

Accordingly, all fieldwork and overseas travel must be subject to a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and departmental approval. This risk assessment must include consideration of the COVID-19 risk. COVID-19 risk assessment templates are available for UK and Overseas travel/fieldwork to assist departments in assessing the unique risks posed by the virus. The COVID-19 risk assessment is to be completed alongside, and in addition to existing departmental travel/fieldwork risk assessment forms which cover other risks. Existing forms should be available from your department, if not please use the following: travel and fieldwork risk assessment template.  

A key part of the planning process for any travel during the COVID-19 pandemic is consideration of whether plans can be adapted to incorporate remote and online methods which replace or reduce need for fieldwork or travel. Consideration of this is particularly important, and should be documented, where the FCDO advise against all but essential travel or all travel to a country or region; Where the FCDO is advising against travel, that travel should only be considered where it is (a) essential for University business, in terms of achieving planned research and teaching aims, (b) can be done safely and (c) cannot be achieved by other means.  


Text Box 


Travellers are advised to allow plenty of time for Safety Office review.  Travellers should also allow a lead in time of at least 6 weeks where referral to insurers is required. Countries and activities requiring referral to insurers are outlined on the Insurance website


The approval process will be expedited where departments undertake their own thorough review of risk assessments to ensure they are suitable and sufficient, containing all relevant information, before submission to the Safety Office where this is required. Please see an example COVID-19 travel risk assessment which provides a good level of detail and evidences thorough, informed planning and arrangements. 


Given the rapidly changing global context it is particularly important to keep risk assessments up to date; changes in a country’s status must be addressed and any action taken in line with official advice. 


A working from home guide has been published, which now includes information on how to set up your workstation. Please refer to this guide and if you have any questions, please contact your supervisor or line Mmanager.

In addition, HR Support have issued further information and resources to support home-working and staff wellbeing on their website.

There is no requirement for people to conduct detailed display screen equipment assessments, including self-assessments, whilst working at home during this pandemic. However, these are unprecedented times and the University advice will change over the coming weeks, as we move from the immediate response into a more permanent position.

If you have a concern about your workstation or any associated discomfort, then refer to the working from home guide. If that does not address your concerns, then discuss this with your supervisor or line manager.  A display screen equipment self-assessment would be helpful at this stage in order to help determine what reasonable adjustments might be required.

It is likely that simple modifications, such as the use of separate keyboards or improvised laptop stands,  would accommodate most people’s needs. However, you can discuss possible arrangements for loaning equipment from your office, if feasible, as this may help those with specific needs or concerns.

Supervisors and line managers should discuss any questions they may have with their display screen equipment assessors in the first instance or email us for advice at

Further advice will be issued in due course.

Yes, it will. 

Although we may ask you to securely store certain types of waste for extended periods of time.

Please assume that the Safety Office’s hazardous waste stream is functioning as normal, sending through requests for disposal in accordance with existing procedures. These will be assessed on a case-by-case basis and if adjustments are required, be that longer term storage or utilising outside contractors, then you will be advised accordingly.

There are legal constraints on the accumulation times for certain types of waste (eg radioactive waste) and that others (eg biological/clinical waste) can create obvious nuisances and hazards arising from delayed collections. However, it is possible (and perfectly safe and legal, although inconvenient) to suspend operations involving other hazardous wastes for extended periods.

We will focus our contingencies on supporting the radioactive and biological/clinical waste streams. 

For other types, we ask that you carefully consider and identify safe locations for extended storage. If this becomes a problem, then please email us at and we will look to accommodate by other means. 

Please do not use an external waste courier without first consulting the Safety Office. This will not only result in direct costs to the department, but can easily put you, your department and the University in breach of the relevant legislation if not correctly followed.

Departments should already have procedures in place for lone working to address the University’s policy on out of hours and lone working. This policy statement is restated below and remains relevant to the current situation. However, the number of people lone working is likely to increase, so you must revisit existing risk assessments and business continuity plans to ensure appropriate control measures are in place. 

Some examples listed as follows:

  • clearly stating what can or cannot be done
  • supervisors or line managers giving authorisation. This would include written communications in some cases eg for less experienced individuals or higher risk activities
  • devising and implementing practical checking in/out procedures
  • liaising, as necessary, with others if buildings have shared occupancy
  • training or retraining people on emergency procedures
  • running basic checks on the understanding and implementation of these emergency procedures

Ensuring lone workers have access to key contact numbers, including Oxford University Security Services (OUSS).

Extract from the University Policy Statement S5/08:
Risk Assessment - Out of Hours and Lone Working

The legal requirement to identify the hazards of all work, to assess the risks involved and to put measures in place to avoid or control those risks includes out of normal working hours activities and lone working. This duty extends to recording the significant findings of the assessment. Departments must assess all activities being carried out, define which are acceptable out of hours and prohibit those which are not.

In all cases managers or supervisors in charge of an area of work must establish a suitable framework for individuals in terms of what is and what is not permissible for them under lone working conditions. Managers or supervisors are expected to report on a termly basis to their head of department that they have made arrangements for the safety of those under their day to day control.

Out of hours working in Social Sciences and Humanities departments and institutions generally centres around office type activities and is considered low risk. Therefore, providing it is agreeable to the head of department, lone working may be freely permitted. It is accepted that residual risks such as falling from a step stool or tripping on stairs will remain. However, the arrangements for summoning assistance in the event of such an accident should be established and the information be readily available to persons working out of hours.

Persons from higher risk departments (ie Science and Clinical departments) carrying out general office duties may do so on their own, with the permission of their departmental head. Laboratory or workshop activities involving any risk greater than those of general office duties must only be undertaken with others present or at least within earshot. This is to ensure that assistance is forthcoming in the event of an accident. Departments must consider carefully what first aid and other emergency provision is necessary for out of hours working taking account of the nature, scale and range of activities being permitted.

Although not a formal requirement departmental heads may wish to continue with the procedure of recording the names of those present within the department out of hours, ie the signing in and out procedure. In the event of an emergency situation out of hours the attending services will need to know if the building is occupied and where any workers are likely to be.

The 24 hour day working `norm' on NHS premises should not be interpreted as meaning that clinical departments do not have to assess risks or evaluate which activities may continue and under what circumstances.

During the pandemic, the University is still obliged to manage health and safety in accordance with the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and other relevant legislation.  However, the terms ‘reasonably practicable’ and ‘absolute’ requirements become ever more important.  We must therefore determine what examinations or testing is an ‘absolute’ requirement under all circumstances and those where the test periods could be extended for a specified length of time during the pandemic.

For now, departments must assume, unless indicated otherwise, that statutory examinations and testing must be done per the legislation and ensure suitable arrangements are in place to support this. Specific advice will be given within sub-sections of this question.

What are the current University requirements for fire alarm systems?

The Safety Office will continue to work with our contractor - Pyrotec - to ensure fire alarm systems are maintained.  Pyrotec have their own contingency plans in place to keep this progressing and to respond to faults as quickly as possible. This obviously relies on entry to buildings, so we ask that departments identify sufficient deputies for building managers etc. who they can contact to provide access in a reasonable time.

Fire alarm testing should continue on the following basis:

  • unoccupied buildings do not need the weekly test, but do need the quarterly maintenance visits
  • occupied buildings should do the weekly tests and the quarterly maintenance visits
  • we understand that ADT, who look after the fire alarm links to OUSS, cannot provide this service during the pandemic, so Pyrotec will take this over

What are the current University requirements for microbiological safety cabinets?

The statutory 12 month testing for ‘containment level 2’ and 6 month testing for ‘containment level 3’ laboratory MSCs applies. If departments are unable to achieve this, you must notify us at the earliest opportunity.

What are the current University requirements for make-safe autoclave?

The statutory annual validation and examination under the pressure vessels regulations applies. If departments are unable to achieve this, you must notify us at the earliest opportunity.


Departments should already have procedures in place for leaving items of equipment unattended, if they might pose a risk from failure. As the number of trained or competent people in a department reduces, the risk of a significant incident (eg fire, flood, hazardous substance release) increases.

Please read the University’s policy statement on unattended equipment and check that appropriate procedures are in place. 

As needed, ensure appropriate information is displayed so that those individuals first responding to an incident have clear, unambiguous instructions of what to do and who to contact, without putting them at risk.

All health and safety training courses have been cancelled until further notice.

We are identifying the courses that are most important and are looking at alternative ways of delivering this training remotely. 

Once we have any remote training set up and available, then this will be advertised on our training pages. This is unlikely to happen before the start of next term.  

As outlined on the University's Coronavirus advice and updates website the University’s business has largely moved online - although a number of activities are continuing. If you and your line manager deem it necessary and appropriate for you to come into the University, you should take as much care as possible to minimise the risk of infection. 

The Government’s guidelines on social distancing should be followed, as far as is practicable.

The following points should be specifically considered, when coming into the University:

  • do not go into work if you are displaying any symptoms (ie new and continuous cough or a high temperature) and follow the University’s advice if you are a vulnerable person
  • avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • avoid non-essential use of public transport where possible
  • use the University’s Key Worker – Permission to Travel to Work form and Temporary Parking Permits to help with travel into work
  • avoid large and small gatherings in public spaces
  • regularly wash your hands for 20 seconds, using soap and water or hand sanitiser  ie when you start or leave work, when you blow your nose, sneeze or cough, before handling food or eating, and at regular intervals throughout the day
  • avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in a bin and wash your hands
  • try and maintain a 2-metre distance between yourself and other people
  • use telephone or online services - even within the University - to avoid direct contact with other people
  • keep the number of people in any individual room to an absolute minimum
  • use all available space to separate workspaces, including the relocation of computers or work equipment to maintain distances
  • stagger the use of communal areas, such as break out areas, rest rooms, and shared facilities, to further minimise the time spent with other people
  • clean surfaces, such as door handles, telephones, shared equipment, with normal detergents

For the vast majority of people coming into the University, the above sensible control measures will be appropriate. There is no requirement for additional personal protective equipment. However, certain activities may require an additional level of control and you should risk assess and discuss this with your supervisor or line manager. 

For example, individuals who are carrying out essential work in workshops or laboratories, may spend more direct contact time due to the nature of the activities and the need to share facilities. However, if you already work in these settings, then you should already be working to a higher level of control as specified within local rules and procedures eg wearing laboratory coats or coveralls, regular glove changing, handwashing, cleaning surfaces after work or specified waste disposal streams. 

For those researchers who are directly involved with human samples, be that in relation to coronavirus research or not, then please see the separate question on ‘what do I need to do if I want to carry out research related to coronavirus?’

If you regularly access lots of rooms within a building (eg cleaners, security services, estates services), then the use of disposable gloves and some form of work clothing could be appropriate to further reduce the risk of direct contact with contaminated surfaces. 

The use of respirators must be carefully considered. There will be very few exceptional cases where a respirator is required as personal protection.

The Government’s general advice states: “face masks play a very important role in clinical settings, such as hospitals but there’s very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of these clinical settings. Facemasks must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly and disposed of safely in order to be effective.” 

The latter point about correct fitting, changing and disposal is important. As such, respirators are not required unless a specific risk assessment identifies an increased and direct risk of exposure to a high level of virus that cannot be controlled by other means (eg a microbiological safety cabinet). If you feel a respirator is necessary, please contact us to discuss this in more detail.

Finally, if you are involved in bringing in outside visitors or contractors, you should discuss the above points with them prior to them arriving. For contractors, it would be appropriate to ask for a copy of their own coronavirus risk assessment/method statement, to check whether their own procedures for social distancing when on site are appropriate. 

If there is any uncertainty about any of the above, please contact us at


If you want to carry out research relating to coronavirus (COVID-19) you must discuss this with your head of department, in line with the ‘Divisional guidance on continuing experimental research in University premises during the coronavirus outbreak: Stage 4 (Working from Home and Building Closure)’

There is understandably a lot of activity across the University relating to this type of research. However, the required control measures, especially when working with human samples, are stringent and are likely to require the use of a containment level 3 laboratory.

The Medical Sciences Division are currently coordinating their research, to make best use of the available and appropriate containment level 3 laboratories. The Safety Office has developed, in consultation with Medical Sciences, the ‘Guidance for handling human specimens during SARS CoV2 pandemic’.  Please consider this guidance carefully and, if there is any uncertainty over the required control measures, please email us before undertaking any level of coronavirus (COVID-19) research activity.

If you have an accident whilst in the University, then as far as possible, please complete a University Accident Report Form and submit this in the normal manner. 

If you have an accident or incident at home that you feel is related to your work, please notify your supervisor immediately. Please also notify the University Safety Office.

If you feel the incident requires urgent attention, particularly if it falls within the reporting criteria set out in University policy statement S1/14, please email the basic information to the University immediately at

Visit our dedicated page to find more information on how to report a health and safety or environmental incident at the University.

Firstly, check on the University’s Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice and updates page, as additional information is provided.

Also, contact your own departmental or divisional points of contact, including the departmental, area or divisional safety officers.

If you still need advice, please contact us at

Please also keep monitoring this page for future updates, as further information will be supplied as and when common problems arise across the University.

Contact us

In  case of emergency, please contact the Oxford University Security Services at 01865 (2)89999

For any other queries please contact us at