Returning to the workplace: New Protocol published on preventing the spread of COVID-19
As employers will be aware, with effect from 24 January 2022 the government changed its advice in relation to the requirement for home working to allow a phased return to physical workplaces. Employers will welcome the timely publication on 31 January 2022 of helpful guidance on best practice measures regarding the safe return and operating of physical workplaces.
The 'Work Safely Protocol' has been renamed the 'Transitional Protocol: Good Practice Guidance for Continuing to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19' (the Transitional Protocol) and has been significantly reduced in size from 68 pages (in the previous edition) to 16 pages. The Tánaiste stated that the Protocol "is a guidance document and is designed to help not to complicate". It "draws on lessons learned to date" and reflects the general easing of public health measures across the economy and the change in emphasis towards personal responsibility.
What are the most significant changes?
The most significant change is that physical distancing will not be required in workplaces, which will greatly facilitate the return to the physical workplace for employers and employees. In addition, employers will also welcome the removal of the requirement to keep a contact log of all employees and visitors who visit the workplace. The requirement for the completion of a pre-return to work form has also been removed.
What is in the Transitional Protocol?
The Transitional Protocol emphasises the importance of continuing good practices by both employers and employees to support a safe working environment. The Transitional Protocol notes that employers, in consultation with their employees, may consider maintaining some of the measures they had in place to comply with the Work Safely Protocol, but which are now not required.
Employers and employees are "encouraged" to maintain at least one Lead Worker Representative (LWR) "to ensure a shared responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace for an appropriate transition period".
Other measures the Transitional Protocol identifies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces are:
- Updating the COVID-19 Response Plan to reflect the revised public health advice and measures in the Transitional Protocol
- Reviewing and updating occupational health and safety risk assessments and safety statements to take account of public health advice and the guidance in the Transitional Protocol
- Maintaining policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of employees who may have COVID-19
- Maintain the various COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures (including hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, consideration of blended/remote working, regular and thorough cleaning, ventilation and antigen testing)
Aside from specific regulated settings (such as healthcare, public transport, public offices, etc.), there is no requirement to wear a face mask/covering. However, the Transitional Protocol notes that the use of face masks/coverings remains good practice, particularly in crowded settings. The Transitional Protocol recommends that employers should continue to support and facilitate employees who want to wear a face mask/covering.
Employers should be particularly cognisant of employees in the high or very high-risk category. The list of people in these categories is set out here. The high-risk group includes those aged over 60. The Transitional Protocol recommends that employers should engage with at risk employees to address any concerns they have about the return to the physical workplace and consider whether a fitness for work medical risk assessment needs to be undertaken.
The Transitional Protocol aligns with the relaxation of public health measures across daily life. The revised guidance will be easier for employers to implement in practice as they begin to re-open physical workspaces. As the Tánaiste noted, some of the guidance in the Transitional Protocol is good general advice regardless of COVID-19. It is important for employers to familiarise themselves with the Transitional Protocol and ensure that the various recommended measures are implemented to support a safe working environment.
For further information in relation to this topic please contact Tríona Sugrue, Knowledge Lawyer, Ciarán Lyng, Solicitor or any member of the ALG Employment team.
Date published: 1 February 2022