Advice for Employers – The Return to Work Safety Protocol

Author: Clerkin Lynch

Date Published 29/05/2020

The Return to Work Safely Protocol is a collaborative effort by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), the Health Services Executive (HSE) and the Department of Health. Its objective is to ensure the safe reopening of workplaces in Ireland while also minimising the spread of Covid-19 in the process. Mitigating measures include encouraging employers to enforce good hand and respiratory hygiene, regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, and maintaining social distancing as much as reasonably possible. The employer should appoint at least one employee representative to assist in the implementation of the measures. This person should be identifiable and trained by their employer.

Before reopening, it is recommended that employers develop and/or update their Covid-19 response plan. An employer will have to consider and address the different levels of risk associated with their workplace and activities. It is important to consider each employee’s individual risk factors (e.g. underlying health conditions), implement a plan to deal with any suspected cases within the workplace, and put in place controls to address any risks identified. Businesses are advised to have a contingency plan in place to deal with the potential increase in absenteeism due to Covid-19.
Before returning to work, employers must create and issue a pre-return to work form for employees to complete at least 3 days in advance of their return to work. The form should seek confirmation from the employee that they do not have any symptoms of Covid-19 and that they are not self-isolating or awaiting results of a Covid-19 test. Once employees have returned to work, employers must provide induction training for all employees. It should include the minimum up to date advice and guidance on public health.

In the event that an employee has shown symptoms of Covid-19, it is important to be able to establish a chain of contact in order to protect other employees who may have come into contact with the potentially infected party. Keeping a log of contact or working in small groups will facilitate contact tracing. Employees are to report to their managers immediately if they develop any symptoms of Covid-19 during their shift. Employers must identify a designated isolation area, isolate the person and provide them with a mask. The designated isolation area must then be cleaned once it has been assessed whether the worker can go home. Employees who show symptoms of Covid-19 are to self-isolate at home and contact their GP.
The Return to Work Safely Protocol provides guidance on good hand and respiratory hygiene, and social distancing in the workplace for workers and visitors. It is recommended that employees wash their hands with soap and water or hand sanitiser regularly, and to avoid touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. Employers must encourage good respiratory hygiene by providing tissues as well as bins/bags for their disposal. The current guidelines for social distancing still stand, a distance of 2 metres should be maintained between employees. This also applies to visitors/contractors who may enter the workplace. Free office space should be used as much as possible and multiple employees per office should be avoided. Employers should continue to use remote video calls for meetings where possible in order to keep face to face meetings to a minimum.

Where an employer has an employee who is considered vulnerable or at risk of contracting the virus, that employee should continue to work from home where practicable. If the employee’s presence in the workplace is essential, the employer must make sure they are able to maintain a two metre distance from others at all times.
Business travel should be kept to a minimum. If travel for business purposes is necessary, the use of the same vehicle for multiple employees is not encouraged. Employees who drive a vehicle as part of their employment should be provided with hand sanitisers and cleaning equipment for their work vehicle.

In terms of cleaning, employers must ensure that frequently touched surfaces are cleaned regularly, and that employees have cleaning equipment available to them to keep their workspace clean. Personal protective equipment (PPE) may be necessary depending on the type of work and the potential risk to the employee. For example, gloves, goggles, and respiratory protection. It should be noted that gloves must not be considered a substitute for good hand hygiene.
Businesses with customer facing roles must eliminate physical interaction with employees and customers as much as possible. This can be done by installing physical barriers and making clear markings on the floor to ensure that contact between employees and customers/visitors is kept to a minimum.

All occupational health and safety measures will continue to apply. Where there is a change in the control of infection measures and it requires a change in work activities, employers must update their health and safety assessments. In the event that first aid is required, maintaining a 2 metre distance may not be possible. A worker with the role of first responder should be trained on preventing the spread of Covid-19 when delivering first aid.

Finally, in light of this unprecedented situation facing employers and employees, it is recommended that employers provide support for workers who may be suffering from anxiety or stress. Employees are likely to be experiencing increased concerns about the spread of Covid-19 and changes to their job and work environment. Providing employees with information and sources of advice and support is a step that employers can take to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.