Covid-19: Guidance on returning to your workplace

Last updated 28th May 2020

Introduction

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 begins to reopen.

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 also summarised below.

The Government’s ‘roadmap for reopening society and business’ sets out a phased timetable for a return to workplaces across the economy, with some specific plans in sectors like healthcare, education, libraries, and cultural institutions.

Fórsa officials are now in detailed discussions on return-to-work arrangements – and the implementation of the associated safety protocol – in specific sectors and workplaces. The union will be issuing sectoral information to members as it emerges.

In the meantime, you’re advised to read this, and to keep an eye on the Fórsa website  and ebulletins for updates. If you don’t currently receive our ebulletins, you can register HERE. 

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

 

Background

The Government’s ‘roadmap for reopening society and business’ envisages a phased easing of coronavirus-related restrictions. It sets out five phases, each three weeks apart (see below).

Movement through the phases – and the easing of specific restrictions – will be subject to regular review based on the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which will continue to make its assessments of levels of public health risk. In other words, the return to workplaces may be slower if NPHET deems it necessary in view of the prevailing risk.

5 phases

  • Phase 1:  18th May
  • Phase 2:  8th June
  • Phase 3:  29th June
  • Phase 4:  20th July
  • Phase 5:  10th August

 

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 and respiratory hygiene
  • 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

The roadmap distinguishes between different types of work and envisages a phased return with the maintenance of social distancing and other basic measures to contain the virus (see above). It envisages that:

  • Outdoor workers may return to workplaces, on a phased basis, from phase one (18th May).
  • Workers who can “constantly” maintain two metres social distancing may return to workplaces, on a phased basis, from phase two (8th June)
  • Employers must 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
  • Workers who have “low levels of daily interaction with people” can return to workplaces from phase three (29th June). But social distancing must be maintained, and remote working should be maintained “for all workers/businesses that can do so”
  • From phase four (20th July) workers who cannot work remotely can be “considered first for return to onsite working.” The roadmap says employers should introduced shift work, staggered opening and other measures to increase the numbers who can attend workplaces “as long as they can limit the number of workers interacting with each other.” It says remote working should continue where possible
  • A “risk-based” and phased return to onsite working can commence from phase five (10th August).

 

Healthcare services

It’s envisaged that the delivery of non-Covid-19 health services will increase across phases one and two (between 18th May and 29th June). In addition to social distancing, the roadmap identifies the need for measures to mitigate the risk of contagion in the health sector (eg, through testing and the use of PPE) and says new ways of delivering services (eg, telephone, online and virtual clinics) will feature.

 

Libraries, tourism, sports and culture

The roadmap says that:

  • Outdoor and tourist amenities, where people are “non-stationary” and can maintain social distancing, can open from phase one (18th May)
  • Open outdoor sports amenities (pitches, tennis courts, golf courses, etc) can open with social distancing from phase one (18th May)
  • Public libraries can open from phase two (8th June) with “limited numbers,” social distancing, and strict hand hygiene measures
  • Open playgrounds can open from phase three (29th June) if social distancing and hygiene can be maintained
  • Museums, galleries and other cultural institutions “where people are non-stationary” can open from phase four (20th July), with social distancing and strict hand hygiene measures.

 

Childcare, schools and colleges

The roadmap will see crèches, childminding and pre-school facilities reopening for essential workers “in a phased manner,” and with social distancing, from phase three (29th June). This will gradually increase to other workers, on a phased basis, from phase four (20th July). This could mean facilities initially opening for a day a week “and slowly increasing thereafter.”

Schools and colleges can be accessed by staff for the “organisation and distribution” of remote learning from phase one (18th May), but will not open to students until the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year – and then on a “phased basis.”

Related documents for members in education:

 

Travelling to work

This section should be read in the light of return-to-work phasing (above).

  • From phase two (8th June) the roadmap envisages restrictions on travel extending to 20km from your home, but says unnecessary travel should still be avoided. The restriction is extended to “travel outside your region” from phase four (20th July)
  • From phase two (8th June) public transport providers must restrict the numbers travelling to maintain social distancing. Cleaning is also to be enhanced
  • From phase three (29th June) public transport numbers will continue to be limited, while restrictions on the numbers of private cars travelling to and from urban centres will be considered. These restrictions will be “progressively decreased” from phase four (20th July).

 

Return to work safety protocol

A ‘return to work safety protocol,’ agreed between unions, employers and the Government in early May, is in now place to underpin workers’ safety as staff migrate back to workplaces after working remotely.

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 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.

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 should ensure that the Return to Work Safely Protocol is reviewed for any additional issues that should be considered to ensure compliance with the protocol for those employees who are already working onsite.” (See section 6.2 of the DPER document.

 

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.

 

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, and
  • 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’s 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 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.

 

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 Government’s ‘roadmap for reopening society and business’ HERE. 

Read the return to work safety protocol’ agreed between unions, employers and the Government HERE.