Covid-19: Guidance on returning to your workplace

Last updated 24th August 2020


This document summarises Government plans for the reopening of workplaces that were closed, or where attendance was restricted, on foot of the coronavirus. It also explains the State’s guidance on essential measures to contain the virus as the economy reopens.

Fórsa and other unions have insisted that the safety of workers and the people they serve must be protected as staff migrate back to workplaces after working remotely. This has resulted in an agreed ‘Return to Work Safety Protocol,’ which is summarised below.

Published on 1st May 2020, the Government’s ‘roadmap for reopening society and business,’ set out a phased timetable for a return to workplaces across the economy. It has been revised on a number of occasions – first to relax restrictions, and later to tighten them again.

The latest revisions were announced in a Government statement on Tuesday 18th August, when the Government also said it intends to publish a revised ‘roadmap for resilience and recovery’ by 13th September 2020.

If you have questions or concerns about your own situation, you should contact Fórsa HERE.



The Government’s ‘roadmap for reopening society and business’ originally set out five phases, each three weeks apart. On 5th June, the Government announced this would be reduced to four phases and a further relaxation in the roadmap’s timetable was agreed by the Cabinet on 19th June. However, on 7th August it was announced that phase four would be postponed to 31st August, and further restrictions were announced by the Government on 18th August.

Movement through the phases – and the easing of specific restrictions – is subject to regular review based on the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which continues to make its assessments of levels of public health risk.


Basic containment measures

The roadmap indicates that basic measures to contain the virus must continue as people return to their workplaces. This means that workplaces will have to facilitate:

  • Handwashing, respiratory hygiene and observation of coughing etiquette
  • Social distancing, of at least two metres between people in most cases
  • Isolation of those who show symptoms of the virus, or flu-like symptoms
  • The control of close contacts with people from outside your household
  • Access to advice and supports for mental wellbeing.


Returning to workplaces

Many employees have now returned to workplaces on the basis of the phased return to work, which was set out in earlier versions of the roadmap.

The Government statement of 18th August said that employees should work from home unless it is absolutely essential to attend the workplace in person. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) subsequently amended its guidance to civil and public service employers to say: “As per the Government announcement of 18th August, employees should only attend the workplace where it is essential for them to do so. Employers will determine what roles are required to be done in the workplace to ensure that important services continue to be provided to the public.”

Fórsa continues to advise members to go into work if instructed to do so by their line manager, and to contact the union if they have safety concerns.

Employers are obliged to devise plans that include the maintenance of basic containment measures, hygiene and cleaning, provision for pregnant and medically-vulnerable staff, compliance in higher-risk situations, and possible extended hours to maintain social distancing. These and other measures are set out in the agreed Return to Work Safety Protocol (see below).


Flexible working arrangements

On foot of the revised public health advice, DPER advised employers that, in situations where staff are required to attend workplaces, employers “may consider the continuation of temporary alternative arrangements or new temporary arrangements” including flexible shifts, staggered hours, longer opening hours, blended working patterns, and weekend working. The purpose of such arrangements is to facilitate social distancing and other coronavirus-related public health requirements.

DPER’s advice notes the requirement for “engagement between management and unions/associations, in line with appropriate arrangements” in such situations. Fórsa has told DPER that the agreed Return to Work Safety Protocol must be inform such engagements. This protocol says that any temporary restructuring of work patterns to support workplace Covid-19 prevention measures should be agreed with unions through negotiation.


Childcare, schools and colleges

Crèches, childminding and pre-school facilities have been permitted to reopen, as have adult education facilities. Schools are preparing to reopen by the end of August 2020


Travelling to work

The official advice is to walk or cycle to work if possible, and to avoid public transport unless you have no alternative. If you have to use public transport, you’re advised to avoid peak times. It’s currently mandatory to wear a face covering when on public transport. The Government has published advice on using face coverings.


Return to work safety protocol

A ‘Return to Work Safety Protocol,’ agreed between unions, employers and the Government in early May, is in place to underpin workers’ safety.

The document puts the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) at the centre of enforcement guarantees, and insists that employers recognise at least one Covid-19 worker ‘lead safety representative’ – and more in larger employments. This is an additional role to the safety representative function currently required under law.

The protocol was agreed at the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF), the forum for high level dialogue between Government, unions and employer representatives. Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan is a member of the LEEF.

In mid-June it was announced that 500 agriculture, environmental health and labour inspectors would be given powers to enforce coronavirus workplace health measures on foot of union pressure for a more stringent application of safety regulations.


Public servants including essential workers

Fórsa sought and has received confirmation from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) that civil and public service employers must abide by the ‘provisions in the protocol, which makes provision for workers in ‘customer-facing roles’ (see below).

The union also insisted that the provisions in the protocol must apply to workers who have been presenting at their workplaces throughout the crisis. This was subsequently acknowledged in a Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) FAQ document, which says:

“Employers must ensure that all work premises have implemented robust return to workplace procedures, where not already in place, and that all procedures comply with the Roadmap and Return to Work Safely Protocol”

And that:

“Employers should ensure that the Protocol is reviewed in respect of all employees i.e. employees required to return to the work premises and those employees who have continued to work on site.”


Worker safety representatives

The protocol says that:

  • All employments must have at least one lead worker representative, who will work with management to ensure the implementation of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and monitor adherence to the measures
  • The number of worker representatives should be proportionate to the number of workers in the workplace
  • The worker representative must be clearly identifiable in the workplace, and
  • Employers must communicate with existing safety representatives on Covid-related safety measures.

The DPER FAQ document gives further guidance on the appointment of lead worker representatives in the civil and public servants.


Preparing for the return to workplaces

Under the agreed protocol, employers are obliged to take a number of measures in advance of staff returning to work. They must consult with the worker safety representatives to:

  • Develop or update a Covid-19 response plan
  • Update health and safety risk assessments and safety statements
  • Address the level of risk associated the workplace and its activities (including how workers could be exposed to the virus)
  • Take account of individual risk factors, including those associated with older workers and those with underlying medical conditions
  • Implement controls to address the risks they have identified
  • Have a response plan to deal with suspected cases of Covid-19
  • Implement the measures necessary to reduce the spread of Covid-19
  • Communicate these measures to staff.

Before staff return to work, employers must seek confirmation from each staff member that they have no coronavirus symptoms, and aren’t self-isolating or awaiting Covid-19 test results. And they must provide induction training for all workers, and implement temperature testing if public health advice says they should.


Hygiene and cleaning

The protocol requires employers to:

  • Put hygiene facilities in place for hand hygiene measures, and advise staff on how to perform hand hygiene effectively
  • Provide tissues – and bins and bags for their disposal – and provide advice on good respiratory practice.

The document also gives detailed guidance on the cleaning and disinfection of workplaces, including the regular cleaning of frequently-touched surfaces. It says employers should provide their staff with cleaning materials to clean their own workspaces, make sure that waste is collected regularly, and modify the use of hot desks.


Social distancing

The protocol requires employers to provide for physical distancing by:

  • Organising work spaces to maximise social distancing
  • Organising workers into small teams that consistently work and take breaks together
  • Stagger canteen use, and arrange facilities and procedures to maximise social distancing during breaks
  • Allocating specific times for collections, appointments and deliverables
  • Using remote means for meetings where possible and minimising attendance at face-to-face meetings if they are absolutely necessary
  • Providing one-way systems in the workplace where practicable
  • Implementing physical distancing and hand hygiene for outdoor work activities
  • Banning hand-shaking.

Where it’s not possible to maintain the recommended two metres of social distancing, employers must:

  • Maintain distancing of at least one metre, or as much as is reasonably practicable
  • Install physical barriers, like clear plastic guards
  • Minimise direct worker contact and provide hand washing facilities, sanitisers and wipes
  • Make face masks available in line with public health advice.


Customer-facing roles

The protocol says employers should eliminate physical interaction between workers and customers where it is reasonably practicable to do so. This could involve revised working arrangements like using online or phone orders, contactless delivery, or managed entry.

Where customer-facing roles must continue it says employers should:

  • Provide hand sanitisers at entry and exit points
  • Install physical barriers and clear markings to minimise contact between workers and customers
  • Ensure that queues do not form without social distancing
  • Ensure that contact points are kept visibly cleaned at all times
  • Display advice on Covid-19 containment measures and ensure that customers follow the advice.


Personal protective equipment (PPE)

While the protocol is at pains to say the use of PPE shouldn’t take the place of other preventative measures, it adds that employers must provide PPE and protective clothing to workers in accordance with identified Covid-19 exposure risks and in line with public health advice. It gives some details of the types of PPE that might be used, and on sourcing and maintaining equipment.


Workers who display Covid symptoms

The prompt identification and isolation of workers who display Covid symptoms is essential to their safety and that of their colleagues. The protocol requires employers to:

  • Keep a log of contact and group work to facilitate contact tracing (and inform workers of the purpose of the log)
  • Display signs about the symptoms of Covid-19
  • Provide information on public health advice issued by the HSE and the Government
  • Tell workers what they should do if they develop signs and symptoms at work.

It says workers must:

  • Make themselves aware of the signs and symptoms of Covid-19, and monitor their own wellbeing
  • Self-isolate at home and contact their GP if they display any signs or symptoms
  • Report to managers immediately if they develop symptoms at work.

The protocol gives detailed guidance on how employers should respond to a suspected case of Covid-19 in the workplace, including identifying a designated isolation area and having sanitiser, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other gear in place if needed.


 Workers at higher risk

The HSE defines two categories of people at higher risk of contracting Covid-19: those at high risk and those at very high risk.

The DPER FAQs say that, where possible, employers should facilitate workers at high risk with flexible working arrangements including remote working. Specific measures should be in place where they have to attend the workplace. Those at very high risk should be “facilitated to work from home to the maximum extent possible.”


Other measures

The protocol also:

  • Outlines employees’ responsibilities
  • Says employers should provide supports for workers suffering from anxiety or stress, and give information on sources of support and advice
  • Says employers should provide staff with information about the measures taken to reduce the risk of infection in the workplace
  • Contains advice on business travel
  • Includes links to a range of organisations and advice on the coronavirus and related health and safety issues.


Contact us if you have concerns

If you have questions or concerns about your own situation or workplace, you should contact Fórsa HERE. 

Read the ‘Return to Work Safety Protocol’ agreed between unions, employers and the Government HERE.


It’s never been more important – or more easy – to get the protections and benefits of union membership. Join Fórsa HERE or contact us HERE.