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Handshakes and sharing cups banned: How Irish businesses will operate once they reopen

The HSA can order a business to shut down operations if it doesn’t comply with the measures.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, at today's announcement at Government Buildings in Dublin.
Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, at today's announcement at Government Buildings in Dublin.
Image: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Updated May 9th 2020, 3:19 PM

HANDSHAKES WILL BE banned and employees’ temperatures will be monitored when businesses start to reopen in the coming weeks and months.

A document detailing a range of essential measures for businesses was launched by Heather Humphreys, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, today.

The document, which was agreed by government, businesses and trade unions, sets out what measures will be introduced to protect workers’ safety and ensure social distancing can be maintained when needed.

The Return to Work Safely Protocol – which can be read in full here – sets the “minimum measures required” by businesses, Humphreys said.

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) will ensure the measures are implemented and can order a business to shut down operations if it doesn’t comply with the rules.

Humphreys noted that many businesses have already developed their own plans, which cover a lot of the same issues, ahead of reopening.

“We all want businesses to reopen and for people to get back to work,” Humphreys said, adding that certain sectors will need to implement more rigorous measures to ensure “maximum safety”.

Under the guidelines, handshakes will be banned, employees’ temperatures will be monitored in line with public health advice, and workers will not be allowed to share items like pens and cups.

The document notes:

  • Employers must: provide for physical distancing across all work activities and this may be achieved in a number of way; implement a no hand shaking policy
  • Workers must: not share objects that touch their mouth, for example, bottles or cups; use own pens for signing in

Businesses will also have to carry out a survey for workers to see if anyone is displaying Covid-19 symptoms before they can return to work; ensure adequate supplies of items such as hand sanitiser; and implement induction training so workers are “up to speed” on on public health advice, Humphreys said.

Each workplace will appoint at least one lead worker representative to ensure the measures are strictly adhered to, and ensure there is a plan in place detailing how it will deal with any confirmed cases of the virus among employees.

Workers who are more at risk of contracting the virus should be supported to maintain social distancing, or allowed to work at home where possible, the document notes.

The following requirements, among others, are included in the protocol:

  • Each workplace will appoint at least one lead worker representative, who will work with the employer to ensure that Covid-19 measures are strictly adhered to in the workplace.
  • Before a workplace reopens, there will be Covid-19 induction training for all workers to make sure that they are up to speed on the public health advice and guidance.
  • Employers will issue a pre-return to work form for workers to complete at least three days in advance of the return to work.
  • Employers are also required to update their safety plans before reopening, in consultation with, and with the agreement of, workers.
  • The plan should include measures relevant to Covid-19, for example, social distancing, the provision of hand sanitisers, tissues and clinical waste bags, clear procedures around handwashing and respiratory etiquette, and ensuring proper ventilation on site.
  • Employers will keep a log of any group work in order to facilitate contact tracing.
  • Employers are required to put a response plan in place, outlining details of how they will deal with a suspected case of Covid-19 in the workplace, to include a designated manager in charge.
  • If a worker displays any symptoms of the virus during work hours, the designated manager must direct that person to a designated isolation area, along a designated route, all the time maintaining a two-metre distance, and arrange for that person to remain in isolation before arranging for them to be transported home, or to a medical facility, avoiding public transport.
  • The employer must also carry out a full risk assessment of the incident to see what, if any, further action needs to be taken.
  • Breaks and rest periods should be organised so as to facilitate social distancing.
  • In settings where two-metre separation is not possible, alternative protective measures such as installation of physical barriers/plastic sneeze guards should be put in place.

HSA can shut businesses which don’t comply

Humphreys said the HSA can order a business to shut down operations if it doesn’t comply with the measures.

The minister said HSA inspectors “will provide advice and support to employers and employees on how they are implementing the Covid-19 measures in the workplace”.

“They will also be able to visit the workplace and advise on any shortcomings through a Report of Inspection, which is left with the employer at the end of the visit and can include timelines and follow-ups needed.

They also have the power to serve an Improvement Notice, a legal directive from an inspector requiring that certain improvements be carried out in a specified time-frame, or a Prohibition Notice, a legal instruction directing that a specified work activity be stopped.

“Ultimately, if a business doesn’t cooperate and comply with the public health guidelines after being asked to make improvements, the HSA will be able to order them to shut down the workplace.” Humphreys stated.

However, she added she is “confident that employers want their businesses to remain open and want to do the right things to protect and support their workers”.

The minister acknowledged that some of the measures will cost businesses money, and she encouraged them to avail of any relevant government supports.

‘An essential weapon’

Speaking at the briefing, Patricia King, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), said the document is “an essential weapon in the battle against this lethal virus, Covid-19, which continues to pose a real threat to the health of all our people, and does not respect boundaries between workers and employers”. 

“These are not discretionary guidelines. They are a set of directive actions that every employer and worker and contractor and customer has an absolute duty to adhere to, to keep themselves and their workplace safe,” King stated. 

Tom Parlon, Director General of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), also spoke at today’s press conference. He said the measures in the national protocol will protect workers, their families and the wider community. 

Parlon said construction industry workers “are probably going to be the guinea pigs” as they’re due to be back to work on 18 May. 

“We had previously prepared a very comprehensive standard operating procedure specific to construction,” Parlon said.

“And we will be amending it now immediately today to take on board any of the issues that are in the national protocol. And just like the national protocol, ours is a live document as well so it continues to be, and it will be, updated,” he added.

Parlon said the construction industry has been preparing for a month to return to work.

“As part of this ongoing preparation, in the coming weeks companies will be carrying out site safety assessments to ‘covid proof’ construction sites around the country to prepare for a gradual return to work.

“This will involve putting in place extra hygiene facilities, adding safety modifications on sites and carrying out essential maintenance on sites to ensure safety,” Parlon stated.

Ibec, the business representative group, has welcomed the publication of the guidelines.

Ibec CEO Danny McCoy said the group has been “working closely” with the government, ICTU, and other representative bodies on “the measures required to support a safe return to the workplace for our businesses”.

McCoy said Ibec welcomes the fact the the protocol is “a general document which can be applied across all industry sectors”.

“Its design allows for the introduction of further sector or industry specific measures, as long as they enhance the measures set out in the protocol,” he said.

McCoy added that the document “will provide confidence to employers and employees that the safety and wellbeing of people at work can be securely managed as we begin to reopen our economy”.

Concerns over costs

Dublin Chamber, which represents more than 1,300 businesses throughout the Dublin region, said the measures are necessary but “provide a sobering insight into the complexities and costs that business will face in getting up and running once more”.

Dublin Chamber CEO Mary Rose Burke said: “For many firms, the road to recovery from Covid-19 will be long. Returning to ‘business as usual’ will not be possible overnight and will require the creation and deployment of very considered and robust plans.”

Burke added that implementing these changes and complying with the new norms of working is “going to be extremely challenging for many businesses and will be costly too”.

“In many cases, compliance for many firms will mean having to hire additional staff or the redeployment of existing workers. Businesses will require support in adjusting to the new ways of working and Dublin Chamber will be there to help them get the assistance they require,” Burke said.

Roadmap 

Earlier this month, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar laid out a roadmap for a phased lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland.

This plan – which can be read in full here – lays out the staggered approach to lifting certain measures and reopening various businesses between now and August. 

The plan is tentative and will be kept under constant review. There is an ongoing possibility that restrictions could be re-imposed.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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