On 16 September 2021, the government published updated guidance (the “Guidance Note”) for employers and employees returning to the workplace.
The Guidance Note was prepared by the Labour Employer Economic Forum (the “LEEF Group”) and serves as a useful tool alongside the already published document “Reframing the Challenge: Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting” (the “Work Safety Protocol”), which sets out the government’s proposed plans of further easing restrictions as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Work Safety Protocol provides for a phased and staggered return to the workplace with effect from today, 20 September 2021.
What changes will take effect from 20 September 2021?
As it currently stands, government advice is that where possible, all employees should continue to work from home unless necessary to attend the workplace in person. From today, employees can begin returning to the workplace on a phased basis. This means that employers will need to be vigilant in how many employees will be returning to the workplace and will need to familiarise themselves with the Work Safety Protocol, as well as the return-to-work checklists published by the Health and Safety Authority (the “HSA”).
A new checklist (“Checklist 9: Returning to the Office”) has been published by the HSA, which employers ought to refer to when re-opening offices. The checklist should be read in conjunction with the Work Safety Protocol and may find that they are required to take further steps to ensure a safe return to work.
What do employers need to do now?
Employers are required to review and update internal guidance measures in line with the advice provided for in the Work Safety Protocol. The approach taken by employers should be a collaborative one, whereby consultation takes place between employers and their employees to ensure all individuals are satisfied with the measures taken to re-open the workplace.
At a minimum, employers should provide their employees with up-to-date guidance on Covid-19 and the preventative measures which all individuals should adhere to. At a minimum, this information should include:
- Signs and symptoms of Covid-19;
- How Covid-19 spreads;
- Advice about respiratory and hand hygiene, physical distancing and ventilation;
- Use of face masks or coverings, Personal Protection Equipment;
- Waste disposal;
- The importance of not going to work if displaying any signs or symptoms of Covid-19; and
- The Covid-19 vaccination programme.
Pre-Return to Work Measures
Before employees make their return to work, employers must establish and issue a Pre-Return to Work form for employees to complete. Checklist No. 6, as provided by the HSA, acts as useful guidance for employers when preparing their internal forms. These forms should, at the very least, seek confirmation that the employee, to the best of their knowledge:
- has no symptoms of Covid-19;
- is not awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test; and
- is not self-isolating or restricting their movements.
Employers should note that it may be necessary for an employee to seek medical advice before returning to work if any of the answers to the above are “yes”. If employers have previously issued a Pre-Return to Work form to employers, a new form may not need to be submitted by employees, but rather employees should confirm that no changes apply to their individual situation.
It is important to note that Pre-Return to Work forms should only be retained for as long as necessary by employers and in line with the advice from the Data Protection Commission.
Updating Employer’s Covid-19 Response Plan
Employers should update/maintain their Covid-19 Response Plan. This involves:
- Consulting with employees on the measures to be taken to return to work;
- Communicating with employees the measures that have been agreed upon;
- Carry out the relevant risk assessments in the workplace;
- Ensure that changes have been made in line with the results of the risk assessments (i.e. separating desks, implementing one way system, providing hand sanitisers etc.);
- Take into account individual risk factors (e.g. older and high risk employees);
- Include controls and reporting measures to deal with a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19;
- Reviewing and updating (where necessary) sick leave policies;
- Providing information on how to receive illness benefits or other government Covid-19 supports;
- Agreeing/negotiating with workers/trade unions any temporary restructuring of work patterns where necessary; and
- Minimising the rotation of staff, particularly in relation to staff employed under agency contracts.
It is also vital that employers keep a log of contacts to facilitate contact tracing. Employers should ask employees to re-confirm their contact details in the event that contact tracing needs to take place.
Appointing a Lead Worker Representative (“LWR”)
Each workplace is required to appoint at least one LWR, however this should be proportionate to the number of employees in each organisation. The LWR is responsible for monitoring and ensuring that return-to-work safety protocols are followed by both employers and employees. Employers should provide each LWR with the necessary training and if required, further information and a short online course on this role can be on the HSA website by clicking here.
Should any concerns arise about an organisation’s implementation of the Work Safety Protocol, these concerns can be raised with the Workplace Contact Unit of the HSA.
Further Easing of Restrictions from 22 October 2021
From 22 October 2021, the government aims to remove further statutory restrictions and it is envisaged that the requirement to work from home will be removed entirely, with physical attendance in workplaces permitted on a phased and cautious basis.
Ahead of this date, further discussions will take place between the government and the LEEF in relation to the further easing of restrictions while taking into account the latest public health guidance. The government will also continue to implement “Making Remote Work” (Ireland’s National Remote Work Strategy) a more prominent feature in the Irish workplace.
Leman Solicitors regularly advises employers on how to comply with legal developments, updating company policies and carrying out risk assessments. For further information on how your business can prepare for these changes, please contact Bláthnaid Evans ([email protected]) on 01 639 3000.