Employer’s guide to the Return to Work Safely Protocol

Last updated: May 17th, 2022

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The Government recently announced the Return to Work Safely Protocol (the Protocol).

While the announcement brings businesses another step closer to reopening, it does add several health & safety considerations to each employer’s already extensive reopening checklist.

What is the Protocol?

The Protocol sets our measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. These are mandatory measures and apply to all businesses.

That means that employers must put all relevant measures into practice. It may also mean having to adapt workplace practices and procedures to some extent to comply with the new Government health protection measures.

The Protocol clearly sets out the steps employers and workers must take before a workplace reopens, and while it continues to operate.

Below we take a look at seven key issues.

  1. Appointing a lead worker representative

To ensure these new measures are put into practice, employers will need their employees on-board. All workplaces will be required to appoint at least one ‘lead worker representative’ who will be responsible for ensuring that the COVID-19 safety measures are put in place and followed.

These representatives must undertake relevant training and be provided with a framework to effectively mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the workplace. Furthermore, the number of lead worker representatives will depend on the number of employees a business has.

  1. The COVID-19 response plan

Employers will need to consult with their lead worker representative(s) on the development and/or updating of a COVID-19 Response Plan. This will involve:

  • Updating all occupational safety statements and health & safety risk assessments.
  • Considering individual employee risk factors (e.g. presence of underlying medical conditions, older workers).
  • Including a response plan to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19.
  • Including the controls necessary to address the risks identified.
  • Including contingency measures to address worker absenteeism.
  • Implementing measures necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and changing work patterns.
  • Communicating the plan to all workers.
  1. Development of a procedure to identify and isolate symptomatic employees

Both employers and employees need to remain vigilant when it comes to identifying COVID-19 symptoms. Employers will also have to agree on what action to take if potentially infectious people are present in the workplace.

  1. Employment policies

Now is the time for employers to review and amend relevant policies. For instance, sick leave policies will need to be updated to take account of Government health advice.

Employers will have to remain on top of the latest Government health advice and ensure that all employees are playing their part. They’ll also need to work directly with their lead worker representative on communicating the latest health advice in the workplace.

  1. Planning for the return to the workplace

Before returning to the workplace, a pre-return to work form will have to be issued to workers to complete at least three days in advance of the return to work. This form seeks clarification that the worker, to the best of their knowledge, has no symptoms of COVID-19. The form should also confirm that the worker is not self-isolating or awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.

The Protocol requires employers to provide induction training for all employees upon returning to the workplace. That includes the latest Government health advice and guidance. Staff should also receive training on what to do if they develop symptoms of COVID-19.

Training will also need to be provided on the necessary controls identified in the risk assessment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Temperature testing, should Government health advice declare it necessary, may also need to be implemented.

  1. Handling a suspected COVID-19 case

The Protocol requires that each workplace has a structure in place that identifies what team responds to a suspected case. An area within the workplace where symptomatic employees can isolate should also be chosen. This area, in so far as is reasonably practicable, should be ventilated and stocked with tissues, hand sanitiser, PPE and clinical waste bins.

  1. Preventative measures to implement

The Protocol reiterates that the best way to prevent person to person transmission of COVID-19 is to practice proper preventative measures, such as hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and physical distancing.

Hand hygiene

All employers must provide appropriate facilities to allow employees to practice proper hand hygiene. As well as needing to instruct employees on how to effectively wash their hands, employers have to display posters in appropriate areas.

Respiratory hygiene

Employers will need to provide tissues and bins to dispose of used tissues in. These should be emptied regularly. Instruction on good respiratory etiquette must also be provided to all employees.

Physical distancing

Physical distancing may be the most challenging aspect of preventative practices. For instance, handshakes are forbidden. If office work is deemed essential, it must comply with the physical distancing requirement of keeping two metres between employees.

If the two-metre measure cannot be guaranteed by organisational means, physical barriers may need to be put in place. Meetings should be held remotely and the staggering of shifts to comply with physical distancing requirements may also be necessary.

Cleaning the workplace

Maintaining a clean workplace is going to be one of the top employer priorities of the new normal. Employers must thoroughly and regularly clean busy work areas and surfaces, including tabletops, work equipment, door handles and handrails. These should be visibly clean at all times and cleaned at least twice daily. Cleaning intervals for rooms and work areas should be modified especially for washroom facilities and communal spaces.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Examples of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) include gloves, goggles or respiratory protection. In the context of COVID-19, all employers will need to monitor the Health Protection Surveillance Centre website to see what PPE might need to be made available in their workplaces.

Staff mental health and wellbeing

It’s understandable that some employees may suffer from anxiety or stress as a result of the COVID-19 situation. Some employees may have even gone through traumatic events such as the serious illness or death of a relative or friend. Others may be experiencing financial difficulties or relationship problems.

Employees returning to work after a period of isolation are likely to have concerns about the risk of infection or changes to their job caused by the new preventative measures.

All employers should provide workers with relevant information about the prevention and control measures taken in the workplace and confirm that measures reduce the risk of infection.

Access to an Employee Assistance Programme could prove vital during what looks set to be a challenging reopening period.

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