The end in sight: Covid vaccines and workplace safety
Thursday 25th February 2021
There will be many strange and unsettling things to remember about 2020. There will probably be a sense of lost time, when we might have been doing other things. Going on holidays to destinations near and far, attending classes and lectures on campus, getting married, hosting a group of friends at home to mark a happy occasion, going to a match or a concert.
And then there was the waiting.
Waiting for the numbers to go down. Waiting on news of a loved one. Waiting on a Covid test result. Waiting to find out what Brexit would mean or who was going to be elected to the White House. Waiting for the schools to open again. Waiting for a vaccine so that all this waiting could be put to bed.
Suddenly, as the strange year drew to a close, a vaccine arrived. Then there were two vaccines, followed quickly by a third. Like waiting for a bus, they all seemed to come at once after months of interminable waiting. But not a moment too soon.
There’s been a very high take-up of flu vaccination this season, which shows the heightened sense of awareness and responsibility of healthcare staff.
There was a tangible sense of relief because the end was in sight, a brief pause to absorb the news (and approve the vaccines), then the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of health workers across the globe, literally rolling up their sleeves to get stuck in to the next phase of tackling this horrible virus.
Amid the clamour of this worldwide vaccination effort, there is dissent. There are those who, for their own reasons, don’t want to be vaccinated. At the extreme end of the scale there are conspiracy theories claiming that there’s no virus, no real vaccine, and no need to take one. Beyond that, there are people who are genuinely afraid it might make them sick. Anecdotally, I know of a few older people, vulnerable themselves to Covid, who are, for the moment, steadfast in their refusal to take a vaccine. It will take some persuasion by their loved ones, but vaccination will ultimately protect them.
As the roll-out begins to gather momentum, we need to be serious about the vaccination programme, and we need to consider what it means for workplace safety.
The HSE’s chief executive Paul Reid has said healthcare workers who refuse to take the vaccine may be removed from their posts, describing the refusal of any healthcare worker who works with patients as “inexcusable.” While Reid recognises anyone’s right to refuse to take a vaccine, the Health and Safety Act allows for workers to be removed if they’re regarded as a threat to other people.
Amid the clamour of this worldwide vaccination effort, there is dissent.
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has said that employers of workers who refuse vaccination should undertake a risk assessment in relation to those workers, if it’s possible that they could be exposed to Covid-19 in the workplace. This has very significant consequences for a huge range of employers, particularly those charged with the delivery of public services.
The existing health and safety regulations require employers to offer vaccination in any instance where a risk assessment shows a risk to employees from working with a ‘biological agent’, as long as a vaccination is available. These regulations have been updated to include Covid-19.
These requirements underscore the position taken by Paul Reid in the HSE. If workers refuse a vaccine, and a local manager deems that person is a risk to patients, Reid says “the only alternative will be for that member of staff to do something different”.
Fórsa official Dessie Robinson is a former board member of the HSA, and has recently been nominated to the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) as part of a team examining the psychological impact of Covid. Dessie says the pandemic has served to illustrate the existing robustness of health and safety regulation in the workplace, but other challenges are likely to arise for individual employers: “The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Regulations, 2013 and 2020, require the employer to make effective vaccines available if a biological agent, like Covid, gives rise to a risk.
“The regulations also require that vaccinations be provided free of charge, and that the employee be informed of the benefits and drawbacks of taking the vaccine or not, and the creation of a vaccination certificate,” he said.
But Dessie added that the regulations don’t explicitly state that an employee who refuses vaccination must be risk assessed and potentially redeployed: “That’s why the HSA recommends the application of health and safety principles of risk assessment and avoidance of risks.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said healthcare workers who refuse to take the vaccine may be removed from their posts.
“The legislation requires that employers provide a safe place to work ‘as far as is practicable’, meaning they must take all measures within their control to ensure the safety of the workplace. But if an employee refuses vaccination, that decision places them, and those they work with, at an increased level of risk. An employee’s decision to do that would be very difficult to defend, especially considering the exceptional circumstances of this pandemic.
“But, for the most part, particularly in health service delivery, vaccine take-up is going to be quite strong. Workers are going to want to protect their own and their families’ health. There’s been a very high take-up of flu vaccination this season, which shows the heightened sense of awareness and responsibility of healthcare staff. Prior to the pandemic, there wasn’t anything like the same level of take-up to the flu vaccines, despite a major push every year by the HSE, an initiative that was supported by the unions,” he said.
Covid has radically changed everything, upending everybody’s plans and expectations, leaving a trail of grief and sadness in its wake. The psychological impact of the pandemic needs to be considered here too. For those who have been bereaved, for those who have endured the peaks of the virus in a clinical environment, and for those who have found the changed work environment an additional challenge to the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. The vaccines designed to tackle the virus provide a gateway for us all out of this most difficult year.
In deciding whether or not to take the vaccine, we need to retain the sense of responsibility to each other that was so successfully fostered in the early days of the pandemic, especially in the workplace. Employers, for their part, have both regulations and guidelines to work with to maximise the safety of their workplace. As a trade union, Fórsa has a role in making sure employers provide a safe place of work free from physical, psychological and biological hazards.
That means there’s a role for us all.
It will only be when most of us are vaccinated that we will be able to consign this pandemic to the past. And that day cannot come soon enough.
Niall Shanahan, communications officer