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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 8 July, 2020
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Safety expert: 'Some businesses are using return-to-work plans as a fig leaf - they're not sure what it's meant to do'

Workplaces are grappling with the pandemic-related safety requirements ahead of reopening.

Image: RollingNews.ie

ALL GOING WELL this afternoon, a raft of shuttered-up shops are set to open under Phase 2 of the government’s ‘Road Map’ from next Monday.

Today and over the weekend, many business owners will be putting the finishing touches on their return-to-work plans. But what exactly is required under the government’s rules for reopening and how have employers been grappling with the new dispensation?

Business safety expert Emlyn Ó Troighthigh is the owner-operator of Business Safety, a consultancy with offices in Dublin, Waterford and Cork.

He says that he and his competitors have been “overstretched” in recent weeks with many business owners looking for advice about how to reopen while adhering to the government’s rules.

“The full detail of exactly what has to happen isn’t clear to all small business owners. That’s one issue. The other is that they don’t have the technical expertise so they’re looking for people like consultants to advise them to help them with putting things together,” he said. 

Necessary arrangements

In early May, the government announced its return-to-work safety protocol, detailing a range of essential measures for employers to implement before they could reopen.

The announcement gave workplaces scheduled to reopen on 18 May under Phase One of the Road Map — like construction sites and garden centres —  just a week to implement the necessary arrangements.

A second set of business owners, mostly smaller retailers, will have been wrestling with the same set of guidlines over the past few weeks in a bid to reopen under Phase Two from next Monday.

Employers are required, under the protocol, to put together a reopening plan. 

Among other things, they have to ensure strict adherence to social distancing, provide hand sanitiser, monitor their employees’ temperatures and create designated isolation areas for workers who might fall ill over the course of the working day.

Workplaces are supposed to designate a “lead worker representative, charged with ensuring that Covid-19 measures are strictly adhered to in their place of work”, according to the document. 

Under the plan, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) can order businesses to shut down operations if they do not comply with the rules.

Business owners do not have to notify gardaí or the HSA before reopening, nor will the HSA pre-approve a business’s back-to-work plan.

Fig leaf

Ó Troighthigh says, from his experience, the vast majority of owners are trying their best to roll out the new arrangements but he’s seen several examples of bad practice.

“I’ve been to some building sites where there’s no social distancing in the canteen. There is no recording of who’s coming and going or not [and] the hand sanitising facilities are being provided but not being maintained,” he says.

Neither are all return-to-work plans being made equal, according to Ó Troighthigh.

“Predictably, we’re seeing various qualities of plans put together by business owners. Some of them are quite generic and don’t really say a whole lot about anything. There are some [plans] that you could almost take from a hairdressers’ and put into a woodworking shop and you wouldn’t know the difference,” he said.

“So I think in some cases it’s a bit of a fig leaf.

“People feel they have to have this plan, but they’re not really sure what it’s meant to say or what it’s meant to do for them. So they get someone to write it up for them and then when it’s been written up it goes on the shelf. They know they’ve got something if they’re asked for it but what it does for them, they’re not really sure.”

Confusion

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One measure, in particular, seems to be causing a lot of confusion for employers. Under the protocol, owners are required to keep logs of any group work in order to facilitate contact tracing in the event that someone contracts Covid-19.

Ó Troighthigh explains that this is easier in some workplaces than others.

He says, “If you work in an office of five people, it’s easy for people to sign in to work. But [in a workplace] with rotating staff contractors coming and going and shift work, then it’s not necessarily as easy to record who’s going in and out.” 

Retailers do not have to keep a log of all their customers but Ó Troighthigh says he’s been asked the question by a few of his customers.

In advance of Phase Two and particularly the final three phases of the government’s Road Map, Ó Troighthigh believes there is “still time for the official agencies to re-communicate and reinforce” that all the information is available “in reasonably plain English” on the HSA’s website.

While the HSA is not amenable to employers sending in their plans and “running the ruler across it”, he says that they are good at giving advice.

Ó Troighthigh’s own advice for confused employers?

“In the first instance, consult the HSA’s website to get an overview of what’s required. Maybe speak to your Local Enterprise Office to see what assistance can be given.”

As a last measure, he says you can call someone “who will offer a professional service but that’s going to cost more money. That’s the dilemma”.

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