The Return to Work Safely Protocol, now known as the Work Safely Protocol, was updated on 20 November 2020 to reflect the continuously evolving public health advice and guidance and the Government’s Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19.
Its publication coincides with the prospect of the country emerging from Level 5 and more businesses returning to the workplace. In this respect, the earlier May 2020 Protocol has been amended to provide information on the measures that need to be implemented to ensure that workplaces re-open and continue to operate safely. These measures are general in nature and it is important for employers to be aware that they need to be specifically tailored to their workplace and its needs
Further guidance is also provided to employers on how best to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. There is no significant “new” obligation being asked of employers but the amended Protocol provides more detail for employers on areas to consider for the workplace and emphasis is put on the fact that COVID-19 is a public health risk that can have huge implications for workplaces and the health and safety of its workers. As such, effective implementation of the Protocol must involve a collaborative effort from both the employer and the employees. In this respect, businesses are reminded to follow all public health advice in relation to control of outbreaks, hand sanitisation, wearing of masks and ventilation.
The Protocol applies to all sectors and organisations and states that the Government continues to recommend that working from home should continue where possible.
Key amendments to the Protocol:
- COVID-19 symptoms have been updated and now include the loss or change in sense of smell and/or taste.
- Information on how COVID-19 spreads and how long it can survive on surfaces is now included in the Protocol together with steps an employer should take to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- Employers must keep their COVID-19 Response Plan up to date and continue to develop it in line with public health advice and legislation. Employers must work collaboratively with the appointed Lead Worker Representatives on any changes to the COVID-19 Response Plan.
- Employers must ensure that a worker’s health is not inadvertently exposed to additional occupational hazards where practices have been changed or modified to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Employers must incorporate into their response plan any specific communication measures in place that are required for workers whose first language is not English.
- Employers must maintain up-to-date information for all employees as it may be needed by the Department of Public Health in the event of an outbreak.
- Employers must provide information to employees on how to receive illness benefits or other Government supports.
- Employers must provide public health advice and information in languages other than English. Consideration must also be given to displaying COVID-19 information on TV monitors in popular spaces in the workplace, such as the canteen.
- Employers must ensure that the employment of staff via employment agencies supports the prevention and spread of COVID-19.
- Induction training should be provided to all employees on their return to the workplace following a closure.
- Employers should encourage employees to download and use HSE COVID-19 app and provide advice to employees on the tracker.
- Employers must provide hand sanitisers where washing facilities cannot be accessed and all hand sanitisers in the workplace must contain a minimum of 60% alcohol.
- Employees must use their own pens when signing in and out of work.
- Employers must provide tissues for all employees as well as bins/bags for their disposal.
- Employers must implement a queue management system with correct distance markings to avoid queues at popular areas in the workplace, such as food counters.
- Employers should put in place card payment facilities where possible.
- Employers must ensure that workers sharing collective accommodation at a place of work are grouped in teams or pods and, where possible, should be provided with their own communal facilities.
- Employers must always prevent gatherings of employees in workplace.
- Employers must install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards, between employees.
- The Protocol notes the new EU traffic light approach to travel.
- Employers must implement any COVID-19 testing that may be required as part of mass or serial testing requirements as advised by Public Health.
- Employers must ensure that the designated isolation area is accessible by people with disabilities and that it has a door that can be closed over. Where this is not possible, the employer must provide an area away from employees.
- The Protocol refers to At Risk Workers and advises that At-Risk Workers who cannot work from home must be supported in maintaining a physical distance of 2 meters while in the workplace.
- Induction training for contractors and visitors to the workplace should be provided.
- Personal waste e.g. used tissues and wipes should be exposed of in a plastic rubbish refuse bag. When this bag is full, it should be placed in a second refuse bag and left in a safe location for 3 days before being put out for collection.
- The Protocol includes links to websites containing further information re ventilation and provides that it is important that employers check their ventilation systems to ensure that there is an adequate supply of fresh air from a clean source.
- Workers should be organised into pods where possible.
- Where a risk exposure to COVID-19 is identified, an occupational health and safety risk assessment must be completed by the employer.
- The Protocol notes that face masks should be worn by employees if they need to share a vehicle, which is not encouraged by the Protocol.
- Face coverings are not currently required in office settings but as was the case previously, consideration should be given to using masks where social distancing is not possible or in open areas such as reception or other areas where people may pass.
What must employers do:
- If your place of work was closed during the Level 5 restrictions induction training should take place in advance of a return. Confirmation should be obtained from staff 3 days before returning to work that the employee is symptom free.
- Carry out a review of your Safety Statement and Covid Response Plan in light of the revised Protocol.
- Carry out a review of your policies, in particular the sick leave and working from home policies.
- Employers should check their employer liability insurance to ensure that it has been updated to reflect risks that come with COVID-19.
- The HSA has indicated it will update its Template Covid response plan and Checklists. Organisations should carry out a revised audit of the business on foot of any changes.
- In June 2020, The Data Protection Commissioner published guidance on the Data Protection Implications of the May 2020 Protocol. Any changes to your business on foot of the November Protocol should be considered in line with this guidance.
- The fact that a review was carried out in your organisation and the changes made should be documented and records retained by the employer in the event of an HSA inspection.
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About the Authors
Anne is a partner in the Employment team at Hayes solicitors. She has considerable experience advising and representing employers and employees on all aspects of the employment relationship from pre-employment matters to termination.
Katie is a Solicitor in the Employment Law team at Hayes Solicitors. Katie advises both employees and employers on a range of HR and employment law issues, in relation to contentious and non-contentious matters, including employment contracts and workplace policies, compromise arrangements and redundancies, industrial relations matters, unfair dismissals and disciplinary matters.