With the latest COVID-19 restrictions in place until 4th May and news that we have hopefully passed the worst of the pandemic there is hope in the air that the Taoiseach will announce shortly that steps are to be taken to slowly lift the restrictions. There is a lot of speculation of how that might look, if it happens at all. But irrespective of whether the restrictions are lifted next week or sometime in the not too distant future (hopefully) consideration needs to be given by employers on how they can ensure a safe workplace for their staff.

Notably, the Health and Safety Executive in Northern Ireland (HSENI) said it has “received approximately a 900% increase in complaints and a very high volume of requests for information and advice” on issues relating to COVID-19 in the workplace. There is no doubt everyone is aware of the seriousness of the matter, and no one wants to be at risk, when they don’t need to be.

Under the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act 2005 (as amended) an employer must provide a safe place of work. So before returning to the workplace the employer must conduct a risk assessment of the workplace to see what additional measures will need to be put in place to ensure a safe workplace, in wake of COVID-19. Obviously, depending on the work environment this may vary, so some of the things that employers might need consider would be:

  • Having hand santizers readily available;
  • Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, disposable gloves and PVC screens;
  • Suitable mapping of 2m distance in the workspace;
  • Dividers around workstations to ensure social distancing;
  • Possibility of keeping doors open, or changing to automatic doors to minimise touching;
  • More vigorous cleaning schedules;
  • Encouraging working from home or new rota arrangements to ensure all staff are not at work at any one time
  • How public spaces within the workplace will be managed to ensure social distancing is complied with, for example in the cafeteria, toilets and even meeting rooms;
  • Whether visitors are permitted to attend the workplace, and if so what safety measures will be in place to protect both the visitor and the staff;
  • Possibility of temperature checking and reporting mechanisms of issues relating to COVID-19; and
  • Flexible working hours, particularly where staff members are using public transport to attend work. 
  • Staff should be encouraged to  attend work by walking, cycling or use of their own car in the first instance, and thereafter if a staff member is reliant on public transport consideration to him/her attending work outside of rush hour.

Social distancing and Training 

As we all know, social distancing is one of the key approaches being taking globally to help limit this pandemic. That being said, all of us will have encountered a scenario where someone hasn’t respected the social distancing rules. So what can employers do to help educate and protect their staff? Well the obvious answer here is training, so how and what would that include:

  • Virtual training prior to returning to the workplace, be it through Zoom or any other video conferencing mechanism;
  • If markings are necessary to illustrate social distancing, this should be highlighted to staff. If the markings are there to help with social distancing from the general public, then staff should also be given training on how to manage people who do not comply with the requirements;
  • Limitations on the number of people that may use the bathrooms, kitchens and other public areas to ensure appropriate distance is kept between staff members. This should also note each employee’s obligations to maintain cleanliness and report any concerns;
  • Reporting mechanisms, both for any employee who believes he/she is portraying symptoms of COVID-19 and also for any employee who is concerned someone within the workplace is not complying with their obligations and potentially putting the business and/or their colleagues at risk;
  • Staggered workplace or the potential for hotdesking (with cleaning requirements built in);
  • Temperature checking of staff;
  • Cleaning schedule and the obligation on all staff to help maintain a clean workplace;
  • Staff socialising, other than by virtual methods, should be discouraged; and
  • Staff should also be made aware that compliance with this new policy is a serious matter, and failure to adhere to its terms could result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

The above is just an idea of the issues that need to be considered by an employer as part of any gradual return to work. Employers need to remember that they are responsible for providing a safe system of work for their staff, and in turn the employee becomes responsible for adhering with the measures being put in place. So by taking the necessary precautionary steps of doing a risk assessment, updating the safety statement, creating a relevant policy and providing training will go a long way to mitigating the risk of a potential claim should an employee contract COVID-19 in the workplace. A checks and reporting system is also key as part of the return to work, to ensure concerns and issues are flagged and dealt with expeditiously.

Our Employment & Corporate Immigration Team is available to discuss any queries you may have regarding COVID-19 Emergency Measures. For further information, please contact Bláthnaid Evans or Sheila Spokes on +353 1 639 3000 or visit www.leman.ie.