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13 May 2020
Devising return-to-work plans
Step 1: risk assessments
Step 2: devise, revise or update appropriate policies and practices
Step 3: train and communicate staff and visitors
Step 4: review
As the COVID-19 crisis begins to ease, employers must think carefully about how to safely manage the process of returning employees to the workplace. The government has suggested that the relaxation of lockdown measures and any return to normal working life will be gradual and implemented on a phased basis. Similar approaches are being taken in those countries which are ahead of Ireland in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies must ensure the health and safety of both their employees and visitors to their premises. They must also comply with any continuing government guidelines, including in relation to physical distancing. Implementing a carefully considered return-to-work plan will be critical. This article summarises the legal landscape and various considerations that employers will need to take into account in Ireland.
The Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 sets out employers' obligations, including:
There are also a plethora of regulations and approved codes of practice which cover specific aspects of workplace health and safety, including:
In addition, employers owe a common law duty to employees to safeguard their health, safety and wellbeing. This encompasses obligations to provide:
Penalties for breach of this duty can be severe – from fines to imprisonment. In general, employers will also be vicariously liable for the wrongful acts of their employees that are committed in the course of their employment – namely, employers may be liable if an employee's health is damaged due to a colleague's disregard of the health and safety rules.
The health and safety risks associated with COVID-19 primarily arise from person-to-person contact, transmission through close proximity to infected individuals and surface transmission. Therefore, employers must consider steps to minimise the risk of the virus entering their premises and infecting their employees and visitors. If an outbreak occurs, employers should have a quick response protocol to stop it spreading.
To get ahead and ensure readiness for staff returning to work, employers must engage now with their key stakeholders in order to devise a plan (which should include those individuals responsible for health and safety, facilities, trade unions (if recognised) and HR individuals).
Employers must consider what risks are posed by their premises and business operations. In relation to their premises, employers should consider:
In relation to people, employers should consider:
Finally, employers must consider whether they have appropriate insurance in place in case anyone becomes infected in the workplace.
Once employers have established a risks draft or revised their policies and practices, they should consider whether updates to the sickness, health and safety and disciplinary policies are required.
Employers may need to draft new protocols for how staff should:
If a union is recognised or employers have a staff consultative body, employers should seek engagement and input on their proposals.
Employers should establish a register of who has contracted or thinks that they have contracted COVID-19. It will be important to identify if any individuals who perform health and safety functions (eg, first aiders or fire chiefs) are absent and need temporary replacement.
Employers should provide a mechanism through which employees can raise questions or make suggestions.
Employers should establish a plan for who will return to the workplace and when. They must work through business-critical roles and those which are necessary to enable proper functioning of the workplace (eg, facilities, IT, cleaning, post room and reprographics teams). Employers may wish to exclude vulnerable employees and seek volunteers initially. Employers will need to designate named persons who will manage the process of which employees will be returning and in what teams so as to ensure that physical distancing can be maintained.
If employers will require certain roles or numbers of people to return, it will be important to establish how the selection will be carried out to avoid any discrimination or other issues of unfairness which could lead to claims. If preferential treatment is given to those with caring responsibilities or those who live with vulnerable people, employers must consider the impact that this may have on those who are required to return to the workplace and who may end up shouldering the burden of increased work.
This should involve:
Employers should review their plan in light of further government guidance. They must continue to monitor the effectiveness of the policies and procedures that they have developed and adapt and revise them as necessary.
With any return to work likely to be gradual and phased, it is anticipated that staff will continue to need to work from home for a prolonged period.
Employers have the same health and safety obligations to those who work from home as at their premises. Employers should consider:
During the COVID-19 crisis, many employees, especially those who do not work from home regularly, will not be appropriately set up to do so. While this may not pose a significant problem in the short term, the longer that homeworking continues, the greater the risk. In the event of prolonged periods of homeworking, employers that require their employees to use display screen equipment should ask employees to undertake display screen and desk risk assessments, including:
When staff return to the workplace, employers may wish to provide them with updated eye tests or offer such tests on request.
For further information on this topic please contact Síobhra Rush at Lewis Silkin Ireland by telephone (+353 1566 9876) or email (email@example.com). The Lewis Silkin Ireland website can be accessed at www.lewissilkin.com/en/ireland.
The materials contained on this website are for general information purposes only and are subject to the disclaimer.
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