Ireland: Updated guidance on the return to the workplace and preventing the spread of COVID-19
31 January 2022
On 31 January the Transitional Protocol: Good Practice Guidance for Continuing to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 (the Transitional Protocol), a revision of the Work Safely Protocol, was published by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It has been very much awaited given the easing of social restrictions and the announcement of a phased return to work from 24 January. It sets out some guidance for employers to support the safe return to physical attendance in the workplace.
The Transitional Protocol
Employers should bear in mind that many employees may be concerned about returning to the physical workplace and consequently, that they should consult with their employees through the Lead Worker Representative or directly, to address these concerns.
The following questions and answers cover some of the key considerations for employers as set out in the Transitional Protocol.
What steps should we continue to take to reduce the risk of staff and other third parties contracting COVID-19 at our premises?
All employers have a statutory duty to provide a safe place of work and this extends to people who may be accessing or using their place of business.
The following specific measures have been set out in the Transitional Protocol:
- Keep a COVID-19 Response Plan in place – The Response Plan should be updated regularly to take account of changes to public health advice and should include measures to deal with a suspected case or an outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace.
- Lead Worker Representative (LWR) - Employers and employees are encouraged to maintain this role in each workplace, with at least one LWR in place. The LWR, together with the COVID-19 response management team, should support the implementation of any new or revised infection prevention control measures required.
- Health and safety risk assessments and safety statement – These should be reviewed and updated as employees return to the physical workplace and as changes to comply with public health advice are implemented in the workplace.
- Maintain policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of workers who may have symptoms of COVID-19 - The need to maintain a contact log with details of employees and visitors to a workplace has been removed. However, employers may need to provide attendance information, as appropriate, in the event the local Department of Public Health has to investigate an outbreak.
- Other infection prevention and control measures - Employers and employees should also continue to follow previous best practice and guidance such as staying away from the workplace if displaying any symptoms, following the public health advice regarding self-isolation, restricting movement, testing and reporting and to cooperate with the local Public Health Offices if a case of COVID-19 and/or an outbreak is confirmed.
Do we still need to implement physical distancing and mask wearing?
- Physical distancing - The requirements to maintain a 2-metre physical distance have been removed. However, the Transitional Protocol notes the public health advice that adopting a physical distance continues to be good practice, which might be continued by employers going forward.
- Mask wearing – The legal requirement to wear a face mask/covering remains in place only for specific regulated settings (e.g., healthcare, public transport, taxis, public offices, retail premises etc.). The regulations, which remain in place until 28 February 2022, also require employees to wear a face mask/covering when involved in the preparation of, and service of, food or beverages for consumption on the premises.
What other COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures should be implemented in the workplace?
Employers, in consultation with their employees, and following consideration of their individual workplaces, should continue to maintain measures in regard to hand and respiratory hygiene, cleaning and ventilation. They are also encouraged to consider the continued use of signage for employees on these issues.
Does the Transitional Protocol require employers to introduce any home working measures?
The Transitional Protocol confirms the Government position in calling on employers, in consultation with their employees, to start to develop or finalise their long-term arrangements for blended or remote working. Employers should develop and consult on any remote or working from home policy and in conjunction with employees and/or Trades Unions. Guidance on Working from Home is available from the Health and Safety Authority. Our article on the recently published draft general scheme on the right to request remote working is here.
Can we mandate the use of antigen testing in the workplace?
The use of antigen testing in workplaces continues to be permitted under the Transitional Protocol but on a voluntary basis only, in consultation with employees and their representatives. Employers are also encouraged to provide information on vaccinations for their workforces.
Implications for employers
As part of the phased approach to the return to physical workplaces, employers and employees are called upon to continue the good practices built up over the past two years, which includes continued adoption of good infection prevention and control measures as set out above. As part of the initial steps for the return to the workplace, employers should carry out a risk assessment and update their safety statement as soon as possible to ensure compliance with their health and safety obligations, before consulting with employees about the physical return to work.
The Transitional Protocol is available here.
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