The Irish Government published a ‘Return to Work Safety Protocol’ last month which provides guidance to employers and workers on measures to be put in place to facilitate a return to work and to minimise the risk of a spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
The publication of the Protocol is timely as the majority of respondents (76%) to our recent 'Getting Ireland Back to Work' survey reported that their organisation has already started planning for the return of workers to the physical workplace.
The roadmap sets out Ireland’s plan for lifting restrictions, and when employees can return to work:
- Phase 1 (18 May): Return to work for outdoor workers
- Phase 2 (8 June): Phased return for solitary workers or workers who, due to the nature of their work, can constantly maintain a distance of two metres at all times
- Phase 3 (29 June): Return to work for those with a low level of interaction
- Phase 4 (20 July): Remote working to continue but a return to work, with staggered hours where possible, for those who cannot work from home
- Phase 5 (10 August): A phased return to work across all sectors
The Protocol, which is described as a ‘living document’ and so is subject to change, provides welcome guidelines on measures that employers should take to ensure safety in the workplace.
References to temperature testing and face mask wearing ‘in accordance with public health guidance’ could be read to imply that public health guidance may be updated shortly to recommend these measures.
Steps for employers
The Protocol outlines detailed steps for employers to take in order to reduce the risk of a spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, which can be broadly categorised as follows:
- Developing / updating a COVID-19 response plan in accordance with COVID-19 specific risk assessments to include assessments of individual worker’s personal risk factors. Employers should appoint worker representatives to assist with implementing the plan and related measures, and to also monitor adherence to any of these measures.
- Developing and amending policies and procedures for prompt identification of suspected cases of COVID-19. Employers will be required to keep a log of contact / group work to facilitate contact tracing.
- Updating current policies, such as absence policies, and communicating workplace changes, for example, agreeing any restructure of workplace practices and making public health advice available.
- Implementing COVID-19 prevention and control measures to minimise risks to workers. The Protocol emphasises the importance of regular cleaning of workplaces and sets out guidance on physical distancing measures, use of isolation areas and the use of Personal Protective Equipment.
- The requirement for workers to follow public health advice, particularly in customer facing roles.
- Occupational health and safety measures and recommendations such as putting in place mental health supports for workers who may be suffering from anxiety or stress, and updated training for first aid officers.
Employer concerns on returning to work
Our ‘Getting Ireland Back to Work' survey found that employers were concerned that difficulties around physical distancing may delay the return of workers to their offices (51%) and also that worker concerns around virus transmission may be an obstacle to them returning to work (24%).
Recommended measures set out in the Protocol include:
- Organising workers into teams that are as small as is reasonably practicable who consistently work and take breaks together
- Implementing a no hand shaking policy
- Rearranging working and break areas
- Allocating specific times for collections, appointments and deliveries, and
- Providing one way systems for access/egress routes in the workplace
Where it is not possible to facilitate 2 metre worker separation by organisational means, the Protocol suggests measures such as installing physical barriers e.g. clear plastic sneeze guards between workers, providing handwashing facilities and other hand hygiene aids and making face masks available to workers if consistent with Public Health advice.
Physical distancing between customers and employees alike will be difficult for many pubs and restaurants to implement. However, it is important to remember that the Health and Safety Authority has the power to take enforcement actions and potentially shut down businesses which fail to comply with public health guidelines.
Currently, the HSE only recommends that face masks are worn by symptomatic individuals to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people. Face masks are not recommended for people working with the general public who are feeling well and do not have respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19. Unless this guidance changes, it will be difficult for employers to enforce the wearing of face masks in the workplace. As with all protective wear, should face masks be introduced to the workplace, workers should be properly trained in how to wear and to dispose of face masks.
As well as emphasising the importance of cleaning and including guidelines on how to respond to a suspected case of COVID-19, the Protocol sets out that employers should issue a pre-return to work form for workers to complete at least 3 days before they return. The form should include the following questions:
- Do you have symptoms of cough, fever, high temperature, sore throat, runny nose, breathlessness or flu like symptoms now or in the past 14 days?
- Have you been diagnosed with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection in the last 14 days?
- Are you a close contact of a person who is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, i.e. less than 2 metres for more than 15 minutes accumulative in 1 day?
- Have you been advised by a doctor to self-isolate at this time?
- Have you been advised by a doctor to cocoon at this time?
The Protocol also provides that temperature testing should be implemented in line with public health advice which does not, at present, recommend temperature testing in the workplace, with the exception of certain healthcare workers being required to check their temperatures twice daily.
What do hospitality businesses need to do now?
- Develop and/or update a business COVID-19 Response Plan. The Plan should outline how to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in the workplace and identify a response team. Workers should be given induction training on COVID-19 on their return to the workplace.
- Update occupational health and safety risk assessments and safety statements. Risk assessments for the workplace and related activities should be carried out and workers should be asked to inform their employers of any particular risk factors. It should be communicated clearly to workers that this information is necessary to facilitate a safe return to work.
- Appoint COVID-19 representatives, a number proportionate to the number of workers, to assist with implementing and monitoring adherence to measures introduced.
- Prepare contingency measures to address increased rates of worker absenteeism and the implementation of the measures necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, e.g. changing work patterns.
The hospitality sector should prioritise carrying out a risk assessment of their premises in the coming weeks, to ensure all issues can be addressed in a timely manner, so that the workplace can re-open as soon as feasibly possible in line with the roadmap.
The Protocol places a strong emphasis on consulting with employees in order to plan the return to work, and also on clearly communicating any changes to the workplace to employees, in order to ensure a smooth transition back to the physical workplace. This is essential not only from the perspective of ensuring that all risks are properly being dealt with, but it will also encourage co-operation if workers can see that their concerns are being listened to and dealt with insofar as practicable. As has been shown time and time again throughout the pandemic, the best outcomes are reached through people working together, and this undoubtedly applies also to the return to work.
For more information and expert guidance on successfully making a seamless transition for your employees, contact a member of our Employment & Benefits team.
The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.