On Thursday, 16th September last, the Government published an updated Work Safety Protocol ("the Protocol"). This is the third revision since the Protocol was first published in 2020.
The main revision to the Protocol is that the Guidance Note on returning safely to the workplace from 20th September ("the Guidance Note"), in relation to which we published our Insight on 10th September last (see Insight here ), has not been incorporated into the Protocol.
The Protocol covers the measures needed to ensure the safe re-opening of workplaces following closure. To support the preparation for returning to the workplace, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has produced an additional series of checklists and templates, available at www.hsa.ie, covering ventilation, rapid antigen testing and returning to the office to help employers, business owners and managers get their business up and running again and to inform workers about what they need to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. In particular, employers are urged to review the new checklist that has been prepared by the Health and Safety Authority – Employer Checklist No 9 – Returning to the Office – which you can find here.
The Data Protection Commission ("DPC") has also published a guidance document to assist in providing the necessary clarification to employers (and their representatives) where the measures set out in the Protocol may result in the processing of personal data. Employers can access that guidance document here.
After 22nd October 2021
As outlined in Reframing the Challenge: Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting, based on the criteria of at or close to 90% of people aged 16 or over being vaccinated in the coming weeks, and having regard to the incidence and behaviour of the disease at the time, the Government will remove further statutory restrictions from 22 October. This will mean a return to physical attendance in workplaces on a phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector. This will mark an important point in how Ireland has managed the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on employers and workers. 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 Protocol also outlines that further guidance will be available to employers and business owners as we move towards the significant date of 22nd October next, when the requirement to work from home will be removed.
From October 22nd, rules on physical distancing and mask-wearing in most circumstances will lapse, though face coverings will still be required on public transport, in healthcare settings and for indoor retail. The statutory regime in place to support the protection of public health will also be wound down in line with agreed removal of restrictions.
The legal position has not changed regarding vaccinations. Generally speaking, employers in Ireland cannot mandate that their employees are vaccinated before returning to the workplace, neither can they ask about vaccination status.
Following over a year and a half of working from home for many businesses, the Protocol and associated guidance from the HSA and the DPC is greatly welcomed in order to begin the gradual return to the workplace. The overriding theme is caution as winter approaches and will continue to depend on any public health developments. The Government has also said that they will continue to focus on 'Making Remote Work', which is 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.
It is expected that employers will develop their own hybrid working policies in order to offer employees a level of flexibility and autonomy appropriate to each sector.
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.