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

Last updated: 29 November 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 on the management of health and safety in departments.

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.  


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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 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 Home-working and wellbeing guidance for staff to support home-working and staff wellbeing on their website.  This includes guidance on when and how DSE assessments should be completed to assist individuals and departments in managing these risks.  If you have a concern about your workstation or any associated discomfort, then refer to Home-working and wellbeing guidance for staff guidance. If that does not address your concerns, then discuss this with your supervisor or line manager.  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

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.

Yes, although the training programme has been modified to take into account the need for remote working. 

The programme now includes a variety of options using webinars, podcasts or other online training, as well as appropriate COVID-secure face-to-face training where a practical element is required e.g. fire extinguisher training. 

A full list of training course is available on our health and safety training pages.


The University has detailed guidance for staff that outlines the actions departments must take when returning to onsite working and responding to cases.

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 will coordinate 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 or at home, that you feel is related to your work, please report this using the University's Incident Reporting and Investigation System (IRIS). 

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

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