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“The Work Safely Protocol” Updated Guidance On Returning To The Workplace

Developments:

Earlier this year (9th May, 2020) the Government published its “Return to Work Safely Protocol”, the purpose of which was to support employers and workers to put measures in place that would prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace as the economy began to re-open. Please see our previous article on that document available here. It was described as a “living document” which meant it could be subject to change and updating at any time.

On 20th November, 2020 the Government updated the document and re-published it under the slightly amended title “Work Safely Protocol” (hereafter referred to as “the Protocol”). The Protocol has been updated in consultation with health experts, worker representatives and employer groups and in line with updated research, data and public health advice. A link to the full 48 page text of this latest version of the Protocol is available here.

Working from Home

Under the updated version of the Protocol the general default position remains that “All staff should continue to work from home to the greatest extent possible” and that employers should develop and consult on working from home policies in conjunction with workers and/or Trades Unions. Employers should familiarise themselves with the updated guidance on working from home that has been prepared by the HSA. A link to our article on that guidance is available here.

In circumstances where employees cannot work from home and their physical presence in the work place is necessary, the Protocol sets out numerous obligations and requirements. Many of these obligations were already outlined in the previous version of the Protocol. However, a number of updates have been made.  

Key Updates contained in the new “Work Safely Protocol”:

Employers should be aware of the following key changes that have been made since the previous version of the Protocol:

1. Common symptoms of coronavirus

The latest version of the Protocol now spells out an updated list of common coronavirus symptoms.

2. Covid-19 response plan

The Protocol continues to provide that employers need to have a Covid-19 Response plan. The requirements in this regard are much the same as before. However, there is now an express requirement to include in the plan specific communication measures that are required for workers whose first language may not be English and identify leads who can act as communicators to such groups. The HSE have provided translations of their COVID-19 Resources.

3. Return to work forms and induction training

While these requirements were in the last version of the Protocol also, the Protocol now specifically references the templates and online video content that has been published by the HSA on these questions. See below the relevant links to the HSA resources (including their template return to work forms and their online induction video) which all employers should familiarise themselves with:

HSA – Link One | HSA – Link Two

4. Identification and isolation of workers with symptoms

In addition to the existing requirements on this under the original Protocol, under the updated Protocol employers are now also required to:

5. Dealing with a suspected case

The previous version of the Protocol had envisioned, among other things, that employers should identify the team(s) responsible for responding to a suspected case and that this should include the appointment of an appropriate manager (or managers) for dealing with suspected cases. Under the new version of the Protocol these persons now appear to be referred to as a “case manager” or “designated contact person(s)”.

Another noteworthy item contained in the latest version of the Protocol is the reference to a requirement on workers who have had a positive test for Covid-19 to self-isolate for the advised period and in addition to this not return to work until symptom free and free from fever for the last 5 days of the period.

There is an Appendix attached to the Protocol that contains further guidance on “management of a case or cases (outbreak) in the workplace”. This should also be reviewed in full by employers.

6. Physical Distancing

The latest version of the Protocol contains more specific information on why keeping a 2-metre distance from other people is so important. It also introduced the use of the term “pods”. Where physical attendance at the workplace is required the Protocol envisages that another possible way of maintaining physical distancing is the idea of “pods” i.e. organising workers into teams or pods who consistently work and take breaks together. The teams should be as small as is reasonably practicable in the context of the work to be done. This concept is not new and was encompassed in the previous version of the document but the term “pods” is new to the document. More significantly, the Appendix to the Protocol now contains some additional general advice on the use of teams/pods.  

7. Transmission via surfaces and Cleaning

The Protocol confirms that the virus can also be contracted from surfaces and gives specifics on this stating that the virus can survive:

The Protocol gives some specific guidance on cleaning including an emphasis on the importance of cleaning first and then disinfecting and that disinfection cannot be used as a substitute for cleaning. It is very important for employers to note that the Protocol specifically dictates that “A system of thorough and regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces in the workplace is essential”.

The Protocol now states that personal waste items, such as tissues, wipes and cleaning materials, should be disposed of in a plastic rubbish refuse bag. When the bag is full, it should be tied and placed into a second refuse bag and tied again. Once the bag has been tied securely, it should be left in a safe location for three days (72 hours) before putting out for collection. Other waste can be put out for collection without delay.  

The Protocol refers to Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), Local Authorities and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) for further advice on cleaning.

8. Ventilation

The Protocol confirms that airborne transmission can happen over longer distance and persist for a longer time than droplets. The Protocol states that airborne transmission does not play a major role in the spread of Covid-19 but that it can happen in some situations. The Protocol advises that to minimise the risk, indoor spaces should be kept well ventilated by opening windows and doors if possible.

There is a lot more focus in this updated version of the Protocol on ventilation than there was in the previous version. Page 28 of the updated version of the Protocol contains some detail on how to achieve good ventilation and includes references to other resources where further information can be found on the issue of ventilation.

9. Agency work

The updated version of the Protocol (unlike the previous version) contains some references to the issue of agency working arrangements during Covid-19. It states that employers should continue to ensure conditions, including the employment of staff via agency contracts, support the prevention and spread of COVID-19 and that employers should minimise rotation of staff across multiple settings and workplaces, particularly in relation to staff employed under agency contracts.

10. Hand hygiene – hand sanitisers

The updated Protocol states that employers must provide hand sanitisers (alcohol or non-alcohol based) where washing facilities cannot be accessed. It dictates that an alcohol-based hand sanitisers must contain a minimum of 60% alcohol. It warns that alcohol based sanitisers are highly flammable and must not be stored or used near a naked flame. In addition to this information the Appendix included at the end of the Protocol includes further advice on choosing a hand sanitiser including registration/certification requirements for hand sanitisers used in the workplace.

11. Respiratory Hygiene

In addition to a specific obligation to provide advice on good respiratory practices generally, the Protocol also now states that employers must also provide advice on the safe use, storage and disposal of face masks/coverings and the safe cleaning of face coverings.

12. Mask Wearing

The Protocol confirmed that the wearing of masks is no substitute for the implementation of the Covid-19 Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) Measures outlined throughout the Protocol, however, they may be used in addition to such IPC measures, especially where maintaining physical/social distancing is difficult. The Appendix to the Protocol contains further specific advice on the issue of masks, face coverings and visors and should be reviewed in full by employers.

13. Protective Screens

The Protocol contains some specific notes on the issue of protective screens between persons in the workplace. It states that screens do not need to be floor to ceiling but should be of an adequate height (e.g., cover a person in a standing position) and width to block the pathway from the nose and mouth to the face and workspace of the other persons. Screens may be fixed or mobile depending on requirements including emergency access. The Protocol refers to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) and the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH) for further information on screens.

14. Business Travel

The Protocol confirms that from 9 November, Ireland is implementing the new EU “traffic lights” approach to travel, which applies to countries in the EU/EEA (+UK). The advice for travel to these countries remains “exercise a high degree of caution.” The general advice for any other overseas travel remains “avoid nonessential travel” or in some cases, “do not travel.” Travel within the island of Ireland can continue as normal, subject to domestic public health restrictions on gov.ie. Workers who have travelled abroad – only in certain defined circumstances – may be able to return to work after their arrival back in Ireland. Details on the defined circumstances are available at gov.ie.

In relation to travel to and from work, the Protocol further states that workers should be encouraged to travel alone to/from and for work. If using their personal cars for work, they should be accompanied by a maximum of one passenger who shall be seated in adherence with physical distancing guidance. Where workers need to share a work vehicle, or where travelling to work with others in a vehicle, a face covering or mask should be worn in line with public health advice.

Those travelling on public transport to and from work must wear face coverings and follow physical distancing guidelines.

15. Specific types of workplaces where the spread of Covid-19 is more likely to occur

Drawing on research, the Protocol provides some examples of workplaces where the spread of Covid-19 is more likely to occur, often due to environmental factors. It gives the example of reported outbreaks in some closed space settings, such as meat processing plants, nightclubs, places of worship, restaurants, and interestingly in workplaces where people may be “shouting or talking loudly”.

The Protocol states that in these outbreaks, airborne transmission (specifically in indoor locations that are densely populated and inadequately ventilated) cannot be ruled out and it dictates that in those kinds of high-risk environments, a greater level of adherence by employers and workers to the specific public health advice for such settings is required.

16. High Risk Workers

The latest version of the Protocol confirms there are two levels of higher risk workers i.e. “very high risk (extremely vulnerable)” and “high risk”. The Protocol refers to there being different public health advice for each of these groups and dictates that employers should follow and adopt this advice. The Protocol indicates that if a worker in the very high risk or high-risk categories cannot work from home and must be in the workplace, employers must make sure that they are supported to maintain a physical distance of 2 meters from others at the workplace. However, employers should enable such workers to work from home where possible.

17. Mental Health

The Protocol now includes some references to new resources and advice available through the HSA.

Consultation/Engagement

The Protocol continues the strong message that good collaboration and engagement between employers and employees and a shared sense of responsibility in implementing the measures outlined in the Protocol remains key in terms of getting through this crisis together.

Further Changes to the Protocol

It is important to note that the Protocol remains a living document which can be subject to further amendment or change at any time.

Takeaway for the Employers:

Authors – Laura Reid & Anne O’Connell

1st December 2020

Anne O’Connell Solicitors

19-22 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2

www.aocsolicitors.ie

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