On 9 May 2020, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, in conjunction with the Department of Health, the Health and Safety Authority, and the Health Service Executive (HSE), published the Return to Work Safely Protocol (the Protocol). The Protocol sets out guidelines for employers and employees to ensure that the eventual reopening of workplaces does not result in a new surge of COVID-19 cases.
The Protocol emphasises the need for coordination, collaboration and communication between employers and workers. Each have a shared responsibility to ensure safety measures are implemented and adhered to in the workplace.
Each workplace is to appoint at least one 'lead worker representative'who, together with the employer's COVID-19 Response Management Team, will be responsible for ensuring safety measures are being followed. There should be a proportionate number of worker representatives for the number of employees. Worker representativesshould be clearly identifiable,and the employer should ensure they receive the necessary training to carry out the function.
First Steps for Returning to Work
The Protocol sets out the steps an employer, in consultation with the workers' representative(s), must take before reopening the workplace. These include:
1. COVID-19 Response Plan
Before workers may return, the employer must develop its COVID-19 Response Plan (Response Plan), or, if such plan is already in place, revise and update it as necessary. The Response Plan should address the level of risk to which a worker may be exposed in their workplace. The risk assessment should also consider individual risk factors e.g. age or underlying conditions. Health and safety risk assessments and safety statements must also be updated as appropriate. The Response Plan should also provide for induction training for all employees regarding COVID-19, as well as a plan for the implementation of temperature testing in line with national health advice.
2. Plan to Deal with Suspected Cases
To protect everyone in the workplace, it is important that any suspected cases of infection are identified and isolated as soon as possible. Employers should keep a log of employee contact and group work undertaken in order to facilitate contact tracing should a potential case be identified. Employers must display information on the symptoms of COVID-19 and provide up to date information on HSE and Government advice, as well as informing workers about what should be done should they develop signs of infection. The Response Plan should clearly identify the persons in charge of the response to a suspected case.
Further, the employer must make provision in the Response Plan for responding to workers presenting with symptoms in the workplace. A designated isolation area must be identified which should be easily and safely accessible. Ideally this area should be behind a closed door, but, if this is not possible, an area away from other employees should be designated.
Workers will be responsible for informing themselves about the symptoms of the disease and should monitor their own wellbeing. If they display any signs or symptoms, they must self-isolate and contact their GP. Should symptoms develop during a shift, they must inform their managers immediately.
3. Workplace and Policy Changes
Employers should review and, if necessary, amend their sick leave policies. The employer's occupational health service, if any, should be made available to address worker concerns and communicate messages about good hygiene practices and physical distancing. Where there is no occupational health service, employers should make HSE and public health advice readily accessible. In particular, employers are advised to be cognisant of employee mental health and wellbeing issues that may arise due to the pandemic.
Any temporary restructuring of work patterns that are necessary to implement preventative measures in the workplace should be considered and discussed with workers and/or their trade union.
Both employers and employees should be aware that they will need to be flexible and adaptable to ensure a return to work is managed safely.
Minimising the Risk of Exposure in the Workplace
The Protocol outlines the following steps which must be taken to ensure the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace is kept to a minimum.
1. Pre-Return to Work Form
Employers must issue employees with a pre-return to work form, seeking confirmation that employees are not awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, that they are not self-isolating and that they are not displaying any symptoms. The Protocol lists questions, which must be included in the pre-return to work form, including in relation to symptoms, close contact with suspected or confirmed cases, and advice from a doctor to self-isolate. Workers will have to complete this form at least three days before returning to work. They will also have to inform their employer of any information which, whilst not included on the form, may be pertinent.
2. Hygiene Measures
Employers are obliged to provide appropriate hygiene facilities to their staff. Employers must also make advice and training available on following correct hygiene procedures, including information on handwashing and respiratory hygiene.
3. Physical Distancing
Physical distancing is crucial in reducing the spread of the infection. The current recommendation is for people to maintain a 2-metre distance from others. Employers need to ensure that physical distancing be maintained in the workplace. The protocol suggests a number of ways in which this may be achieved, including organising teams to consistently work and break together, reorganising work and break areas, staggering break times and implementing a no-handshake policy.
If physical distancing is not possible, other measures such as physical barriers, minimisation of direct contact, provision of hygiene facilities and face masks should be considered. Remote working should be used where possible, and particularly in the case of vulnerable workers. The Protocol also recommends that only essential business trips are undertaken and that employers make the most of the available technology to negate the need for face-to-face contact.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present a challenge to all workplaces as they begin to reopen. The Protocol is stated to be non-exhaustive, and a 'living' document, meaning it will be updated as appropriate, but it is an important first step in reopening Ireland's economy. The Protocol raises additional questions, not least data protection concerns around temperature checks and the logging of employee interaction, and we will examine these in a further article shortly. However, to ensure they are ready to reopen safely when the time comes, employers should take this opportunity to read the Protocol and examine their policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Protocol and best practice.