Updates to the Work Safely Protocol
The Work Safely Protocol (“The Protocol”) (previously called Return to Work Safely Protocol) sets out the minimum public health measures required in every place of work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to facilitate the reopening of workplaces.
On 20 October 2021 the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) Consultative Group on the Work Safely Protocol issued an updated Guidance Note on the Protocol. It stated that the public health guidance that was in effect at that time would remain in place after 22nd October 2021 due to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases.
We are taking this opportunity to comprehensively outline employer responsibilities associated with this document. We would also like to share a few links to some useful resources.
It advised that all employers and employees individually and collectively should take steps to keep the risk of Covid 19 under control. They can do so by taking the following actions:
- acting fast, isolating and getting tested if we have symptoms.
- wearing face coverings where appropriate.
- making sure that indoor spaces are well ventilated.
- maintaining adequate social distancing whenever appropriate.
- covering our coughs and sneezes and keeping our hands clean.
It goes on to advise that, as has successfully been the case since 20 September 2021, the return to workplaces should continue to take place on a phased and cautious basis and for specific business requirements.
This return to workplaces should take into account;
- appropriate attendance levels, cognisant of public health guidance as reflected in the Work Safely Protocol and associated checklist(s).
- the use of staggered arrangements, such as non-fulltime attendance and flexible working hours and
- that attendance is for specific business requirements.
The guidance note goes on to say that each workplace should interpret the guidance depending on their specific circumstances. On one hand, it does not give any detailed instructions to employers on the steps to take to implement this phased return. On the other hand it does, however, emphasise the importance of consulting with workers and, in particular, Lead Worker Representative(s).
Lead Worker Representative
Each workplace must have a Lead Worker Representative(s) (LWR) to work with the employer in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The number of representatives should depend on the size of the business. The identity of the LWR should be communicated clearly to employees and appropriate training should be provided. The Health and Safety Authority (“HSA”) have prepared an online course which takes 25 minutes to complete and is available here.
Many workers will have legitimate concerns around the risk of contracting COVID-19. For this reason, the guidance note emphasises the importance of the role of the LWR in the return to the workplace. These concerns can be overcome through collaborative and open communication and engagement between the employer and workers, based on the Work Safely Protocol, to ensure that workplaces open and operate in a safe manner. Workers should raise any concerns they may have to the employer through the LWR and other representatives.
Employers could complete and use The Health and Safety Authority’s Returning to the Office checklist (“Checklist”) to address any employee concerns with the Lead Worker Representatives.
Steps for Employers and Workers to Reduce Risk of Exposure to COVID-19 in the Workplace
The Work Safely Protocol available here outlines steps for employers and workers to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. These steps are summarised below.
Keeping the COVID-19 Response Plan Up To Date
Employers are required to:
- Consult with workers through the LWR’s in order to keep their COVID-19 Response Plan up to date. Make sure you communicate the updated plan once it is finalised.
- Review and update their occupational health and safety risk assessments and safety statement.
- Address the level(s) of risk associated with work activities.
- Ensure workers are not inadvertently exposed to additional occupational health and safety hazards and risks where work practices have been changed or modified to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Consider workers’ individual risk factors such as older workers or those with underlying medical conditions.
- Have measures in place to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in the workplace.
- Include controls to address risks identified.
- Have measures in place to deal with increased rates of absenteeism in the workplace, changing work patterns and measures introduced to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- Measures to communicate to those workers whose first language may not be English.
- Measures or response for dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.
Implement and Maintain Policies and Procedures for Prompt Identification and Isolation of workers who may have Symptoms of COVID-19
Employers are required to implement policies and procedures in the workplace to ensure the prompt identification and isolation of workers who may have symptoms of COVID-19. This is done in order to protect the worker, their colleagues, customers and the wider community.
The guidance note states that any employee who develops symptoms of COVID-19 must stay at home and stay out of the workplace. Moreover, employers should facilitate getting tested and self-isolating in accordance with public health guidelines.
The Government’s current enhanced illness benefit payment arrangements for COVID-19 will remain in place. This benefit is available at a rate of €350 a week, and most important there are no waiting days. It applies to employees and self-employed people who are certified by a registered medical practitioner as diagnosed with COVID-19 or a probable source of infection of COVID-19.
Develop, Update, Consult, Communicate and Implement Workplace Changes or Policies
- Review and revise existing sick leave policies. Consult with and communicate to workers any changes to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- Communicate the COVID-19 Public Health advice from the HSE to workers through the LWR.
- Provide information on illness benefits or other Government COVID-19 supports.
- Agree, through negotiation with workers/Trades Unions, any temporary restructuring of work patterns that may be required to implement the COVID-19 prevention measures in the workplace.
- Ensure that conditions, including the employment of staff via agency contracts, support the prevention and spread of COVID-19.
- Minimise rotation of staff across multiple settings and workplaces, particularly in relation to staff employed under agency contracts.
Implement the COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) Measures
The Work Safely Protocol outlines the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. This includes prevention measures such as
- wearing masks/coverings,
- physical distancing,
- proper hand hygiene,
- respiratory etiquette
- increasing ventilation.
If unwell workers are to stay at home and get tested and vaccinated.
- provide appropriate hygiene facilities and materials to accommodate workers.
- display posters on how to wash hands in appropriate locations.
- give advice and training on how to perform hand hygiene effectively.
- provide tissues as well as bins/bags for their disposal.
- empty bins at regular intervals, and
- provide advice on good respiratory practice. This includes the safe use, storage and disposal of face masks/coverings and the safe cleaning of face coverings.
The Protocol states that physical distancing is one of the most important measures for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The current recommended distance of two metres between workers across all activities to minimise risk remains.
If 2-metre worker separation cannot be ensured by organisational means, alternative protective measures should be put in place. For example:
- Maintain a distance of at least 1 metre or as much distance as is reasonably practicable.
- Minimise any direct worker contact. Moreover, provide hand washing facilities, and other hand hygiene aids, such as hand sanitisers, wipes etc. so workers can perform hand hygiene as soon as the work task is complete.
- Install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards between workers.
- Provide PPE.
- Provide masks/face coverings in line with Public Health advice.
- Ensure adequate ventilation.
Pre-Return to Work Measures
Before returning to work for the first time after closure employers must
- Establish and issue a pre-return to work form which must be completed by workers in advance of returning to work. This form is available on the HSA website here.
- Provide induction training for all workers on, or preferably before, their return to work. The HSA has a free online course, Work Safely Induction, which is available here.
- Put in place the necessary controls identified in the risk assessment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Dealing with a Suspected Case of COVID-19 in the Workplace
The key message remains that a worker should not attend the workplace if they are displaying any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 or are feeling unwell. If a worker has symptoms of COVID-19, they should get a test as soon as possible. Employers should facilitate such arrangements.
Should workers begin to display symptoms of COVID-19 while in the workplace, the Protocol requires employers to
- Have a defined response structure that identifies the team(s) responsible for responding to a suspected case in the COVID-19 response plan.
- Appoint a contact person(s) for dealing with suspected cases.
- Isolate the worker in a dedicated isolation area.
- Provide a mask and facilitate them contacting their family doctor.
- Arrange transport home or to hospital for medical assessment if required.
- Carry out an assessment of the incident.
- Arrange for cleaning of the isolation area and work areas involved.
- Provide advice and assistance if contacted by the Department of Public Health or HSE in relation to contact tracing.
At Risk Workers
If a worker in the very high risk or high-risk categories must be in the workplace, employers must make sure that they are supported to maintain a 2 metres physical distance from others. Moreover, a fitness for work medical risk assessment may need to be completed either with the worker and Occupational Health practitioner (where available) and/or the worker’s family doctor. However, employers should enable such workers to work from home where possible.
Should workers be reluctant to return to the workplace it is important to consult with them to ascertain the reason for their reluctance and then address their concerns. Advise them of the steps the business has taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Should the worker be in a high-risk category or living with someone in a high-risk category assess whether reasonable adjustments can be facilitated such as continued remote working.
Consider flexible start and finishing times for concerns that relate to the numbers attending the workplace on certain days/times or busier times on public transport.
Medical assessments may need to be completed.
If all concerns have been addressed and the worker is still unwilling to attend the workplace as required on a phased and cautious basis then disciplinary action may be warranted.
Over 90% of all people aged 12 or over are fully vaccinated.
The Protocol states that irrespective of the vaccination roll out, Public Health infection prevention and control measures (physical distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, face coverings/masks, increased ventilation) and working from home as much as possible should remain in place.
As Vaccination remains voluntary and a decision for each individual to make the Protocol advises employers to read the advice on the Data Protection Commissioner website “Processing COVID-19 Vaccination Data” in the context of Employment available here.
Workers should not be asked to consent to the processing of vaccine data due to the imbalance of power between the data subject and data controller and the fact that such consent may not be freely given. In order to process vaccine data, the employer must have a legitimate reason other than consent.
However, employers, working with workers, worker representatives and the LWR(s), can provide advice and information on the vaccination programme so that workers will have the necessary information to make an informed decision.
Antigen testing is voluntary.
Should employers be considering the introduction of antigen testing they must consult with workers, their representatives, LWR and Safety Representative before introducing a testing regime.
The Protocol states that “The key reason to use such tests is as an aid to Public Health in “finding” cases of COVID-19; they should not be used to give a “green” light for a workplace to operate or an individual to behave in a particular way. More importantly, if such tests are being used in any setting, be it the workplace or other location, Public Health advice regarding hand washing, wearing masks/coverings, respiratory etiquette, physical distancing and ventilation, all still need to be adhered to in full. Notwithstanding any local antigen diagnostic testing arrangements, it is essential that symptomatic individuals contact their GP to arrange for a free SARS-CoV-2 PCR test.”
The Health Service Executive (“HSE”) have updated their advice. Specifically, they introduced rapid antigen testing for vaccinated asymptomatic close contacts of infected cases.
Workers who are vaccinated and asymptomatic will have to produce a negative antigen test result before they can return to the workplace if they have had close contact with individuals with COVID-19.
Key Takeaways for Employers
Keep the COVID-19 Response Plan up to date
Implement and maintain policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of workers who may have symptoms of COVID-19.
Develop, update, consult, communicate and implement workplace changes or policies.
Implement the COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) Measures. These include wearing masks/coverings, physical distancing of 2 metres, proper hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and increasing ventilation.
Take into account appropriate attendance levels, staggered arrangements and attendance limited to specific business requirements when returning to the workplace.
Engage with the Lead Worker Representative(s) and complete and use The Health and Safety Authority’s Returning to the Office checklist (“Checklist”) to address any employee concerns with the Lead Worker Representatives.
Make sure very high risk and high-risk workers, that must be in the workplace, are supported to maintain a 2 metres physical distance from others. A fitness for work medical risk assessment may need to be completed. This is done with the worker and Occupational Health practitioner (where available) and/or the worker’s family doctor. However, employers should enable such workers to work from home where possible.
Should workers be reluctant to return to the workplace it is important to consult with them to ascertain the reason for their reluctance. Moreover, it’s important to advise them of the steps the business has taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If all concerns have been addressed and the worker is still unwilling to attend the office as required on a phased and cautious basis then disciplinary action may be warranted.
Assess whether reasonable adjustments can be facilitated, such as or for example continued remote working. A reasonable and informed approach should be taken to reduce the risk of discriminating against employees with health conditions.
Vaccination is voluntary. Workers should not be asked to consent to the processing of vaccine data. This consent is not likely to be freely given. In order to process vaccine data the employer must have a legitimate reason other than consent.
Unvaccinated workers must not be prohibited from returning to the workplace.
Antigen testing is voluntary, and employers must workers, their representatives, LWR and Safety Representative before introducing a testing regime.
At the time of writing this article the Government has advised businesses to work from home where possible from Friday 18th November. However, it is recognised that a large number of businesses cannot facilitate remote working. Therefore, the update to the Work Safely Protocol continues to apply in full in relation to these businesses.
If you wish to obtain some further guidance or specific advice in relation to any of the above, Action HR Services will be delighted to hear from you. Visit Contact Us on the top page menu or simply click this link.
The information in this article is provided as part of Action HR Services Blog. Specific queries should be directed to a member of the Action HR Services Team and it is recommended that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article. This article is correct at 18/11/2022.