In our Insight on 1st September last, we reviewed the Government's plan for the next and final phase of Ireland's response to the Covid 19 pandemic, Covid- 19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting and specifically the part of the plan addressing return to workplaces. The plan outlines that attendance at work for specific business requirements may commence on a phased and staggered attendance basis from 20th September. Further guidance was awaited for employers to enable planning for the return to the workplace to begin for those employers who still have working from home arrangements in place, in accordance with Public Health advice.
A guidance note on returning safely to the workplace from 20th September last has now been published by the LEEF Consultative Group ("the Guidance Note"). This Group, under the aegis of Labour Employer Economic Forum, was established to oversee implementation of the Work Safely Protocol. Members of the Stakeholder Forum are Ibec, CIF, ICTU, SIPTU, the HSA, the HSE, the Department of Health, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Department of Health, and the Department of Taoiseach. The Guidance Note can be found here - https://enterprise.gov.ie/en/Publications/Publication-files/Guidance-Note-Returning-Safely-to-the-Workplace-from-20-September.pdf
The Guidance Note contains important information for employers and should immediately be reviewed so that planning for the return to the workplace can begin. The tone of the Guidance Note is cautious and urges vigilance as the risks posed by Covid 19 remain. This cautious and vigilant approach should be adopted by employers when planning a gradual return to the workplace over the coming months.
As per the Government's plan announced on 31st August last, there are three key timeframes for employers to consider, and we will now address each of these in turn, whilst drawing the key points from the Guidance Note to guide and inform you as you plan the return of your staff to your workplace:
1. Up to 20th September 2021
The status quo will remain as current public health guidance remains that workers should work from home unless necessary to attend in person.
2. From 21st September 2021
Attendance at the workplace for specific business requirements, for those still working from home, may commence on a phased and staggered basis. This is not defined and the Guidance Note does set out that the interpretation will depend on the specific circumstances of each workplace, and should be informed by consultations with workers. This means that the return to workplaces must take place in a cautious and careful manner, taking into account appropriate attendance levels; cognisant of public health guidance as reflected in the Work Safely Protocol and associated checklist(s); the use of staggered arrangements, such as non-fulltime attendance and flexible working hours, and that attendance initially is for specific business requirements.
It is therefore a matter for each specific employer to consider how best to commence the phased and staggered return as and from the 21st September, in accordance with the provisions set out in The Work Safely Protocol, which can be accessed here - https://enterprise.gov.ie/en/Publications/Publication-files/Work-Safely-Protocol.pdf This Protocol is also due to be updated over the coming weeks as we move through the three timeframes and we will continue to keep you updated on developments in that regard.
The Guidance Note emphasises that vigilance will still be required as the risks posed by COVID-19 remain. Ahead of 20 September, employers are now called upon to actively engage with their workers to carefully consider how a return to in person attendance in the workplace can safely take place. To further assist employers in this regard, a new checklist has been prepared by the Health and Safety Authority – Employer Checklist No 9 – Returning to the Office – which you can find here -
This checklist is to be read in conjunction with the Work Safely Protocol and should be the basis for discussions between employers and employees.
Physical distancing and face masks will remain in place during this second phase along with the requirement for appropriate ventilation in workplaces.
The Government is also calling on employers, in consultation with their workers, to start to develop longer-term arrangements for blended or remote working having regard to their operational requirements. Our Employment Team is currently assisting and advising a large number of our clients on their longer term hybrid working models and policies and procedures to support those new working models.
The Guidance Note also emphasises the importance of the Lead Worker Representative(s) in each workplace and notes that, as workers return to workplaces, the role of the Lead Worker Representative is particularly important.
The Guidance Note also provides that, if concerns continue about the implementation of the Work Safely Protocol by any employer, these may be raised with the Workplace Contact Unit ("WCU") of the Health and Safety Authority (www.hsa.ie). The HSA will review all contacts received by the WCU in relation to the Work Safely Protocol and will follow-up as appropriate. 41,000 inspections have so far taken place in workplaces to monitor compliance with the Work Safely Protocol.
3. After 22 October 2021
At this stage, the requirement to work from home will be removed, allowing a return to physical attendance in workplaces on a phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector. The statutory regime in place to support the protection of public health will also be wound down in line with agreed removal of restrictions. Ahead of this, further engagement will take place between Government, trade unions and employer representatives, under the auspices of the LEEF, in relation to guidance required for employers and workers following this date, taking account of latest public health guidance.
The Government will also continue to implement Making Remote Work, Ireland's National Remote Work Strategy which will support employers and employees in ensuring that, following the pandemic, remote working is a more prominent permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits.
This updated Guidance Note and the new HSA checklist are welcome additions for employers at this critical stage as the return to the workplace in earnest is planned and anticipated. A cautious and vigilant approach must be maintained by employers and it is vitally important that employers continue to work in conjunction with their health and safety advisors to ensure that they are in full compliance with the requirements of the Work Safely Protocol and any updates to that protocol over the coming weeks and months.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.