The Return to Work Safely Protocol Updated - Your Questions AnsweredPosted in : First Tuesday Q&A ROI on 1 June 2021
Ireland's reopening plan after the Level 5 COVID-19 restrictions is continuing. Most recently, non-essential retail has reopened and hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses and self-catering accommodation are shortly due to reopen.
In May 2020, the Return to Work Safely Protocol was published. In December 2020, a new version was published, which was renamed the Work Safely Protocol. On 14 May 2021, a second revision was made to the Work Safely Protocol.
This new revision of the Work Safely Protocol (the Protocol) reflects the recent public health measures announced by the government in April 2021 under ‘Recovery and Resilience: The Path Ahead’.
What is the Protocol?
The Protocol advises and provides guidance to employers and employees on measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The Protocol is a general document applicable to all sectors and allows for further specific measures to be introduced in particular sectors or workplaces.
Like the previous versions, the Protocol is a collaborative effort between the Health and Safety Authority, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Health Service Executive, the Department of Health, the Labour Employer Economic Forum and the Department of the Taoiseach.
Is the advice for employers mainly the same as previous versions of the Protocol?
Yes, the Protocol continues to provide the previous advice for employers and employees to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, namely:
- Appointment of at least one lead worker representative in each workplace
- Employer to keep COVID-19 response plan up to date
- Employer to implement and maintain policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of employees who have symptoms of COVID-19
- Develop, update, consult, communicate and implement workplace changes or policies
- Implement the COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures, including, hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, physical distancing, pre-return to work measures and use of PPE.
What are the key changes in the Protocol?
Rapid Antigen Diagnostic tests (RADTs) or antigen tests are tests that detect the presence or absence of specific antigens or proteins on the surface of the virus. Some employers have sought to implement antigen testing as an additional measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, the Tánaiste has commented that he is encouraging more employers to do so. The Protocol sets out information to assist and inform employers on the issues that need to be considered in advance of any decision or investment being made to implement such an additional check.
The Protocol states that the primary reason to use antigen tests is as an aid to public health in detecting COVID-19 cases.
Where such tests are being used, public health advice and guidance regarding hand washing, mask wearing, respiratory etiquette, physical distancing and ventilation must all still be adhered to. Symptomatic individuals still need to contact their GP to arrange a COVID-19 (PCR) test.
The Protocol emphasises the importance of communication and consultation with employees (and their representatives as applicable) regarding the establishment of an antigen testing regime in the workplace. The Protocol suggests that such engagement is done as part of the employer’s implementation of the COVID-19 Response Plan and should involve the Lead Worker Representative(s) and the Safety Representative(s).
The Protocol outlines steps employers should take in setting up antigen testing, which include the following:
- Establish whether an internal or external run programme is most suited to your business
- Determine the most appropriate regime (for example, twice a week, daily etc.) based on the needs of the business
- Agree the process for employees who do not wish to take part in antigen testing
- Complete a risk assessment to take account of the testing and associated risks
- Train all staff who are engaged in such testing
- Agree protocols for management of positive cases, including access to a confirmatory PCR test
- Maintain personal information collected in line with GDPR requirements
- Continue to implement all public health advice
The Protocol emphasises that regardless of the vaccination roll-out, the public health measures (such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, face coverings, adequate ventilation and working from home (unless the employee’s physical presence in the workplace is necessary) are all still applicable. Employers and employees still need to adhere to the Protocol and employers must ensure that their COVID-19 response plan and workplace risk assessments are kept up to date.
The Protocol confirms that the decision to get a vaccination is voluntary. The Protocol states that employers may wish to provide advice and information on the vaccination programme to employees so that they can make an informed decision regarding vaccination.
Due to the increased understanding globally of how COVID-19 is spread, there is a new section in the Protocol on ventilation. The Protocol states that it is important to maximise ventilation in areas where people are in close contact; opening windows and doors or using ventilation systems can decrease the airborne concentration of droplets containing COVID-19 and remove the particles from the air. However, the Protocol provides that ventilation is not a replacement for the other infection prevention and control measures.
The Protocol sets out detailed advice and guidance on:
- the regulatory requirements in the workplace (the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007) obliges employers to make sure there’s an adequate supply of fresh air (ventilation) in enclosed areas of the workplace
- assessing ventilation in the workplace as part of the risk assessment
- the use of mechanical ventilation
- use of carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors as a proxy to identify poorly ventilated areas
- other equipment and systems, including local air cleaning using HEPA filters
Extremely vulnerable/very high-risk employees
The Protocol now provides that in planning a return to the workplace for employees in the very high risk category, the employer should consider whether a fitness for work medical assessment needs to be completed with an occupational health practitioner and/or the employee’s doctor.
What steps should employers take to ensure compliance with the Protocol?
With the exception of additional information for employers regarding antigen testing and vaccination and an increased emphasis on the importance of ventilation in stopping the spread of COVID-19, the advice and guidance contained in the previous version of the Protocol continues to apply.
Employers should ensure that their COVID-19 response plan and policies and procedures relating to COVID-19 in their workplace are up to date and aligned with the latest version of the Protocol.
The Health and Safety Authority has a range of useful templates and checklists here regarding the return to the workplace and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace (available here).
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The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.