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Concern over how physical distancing in workplaces will be 'policed' once restrictions are eased

Unions are monitoring the situation but they say enforcement resources need to be increased.
Apr 28th 2020, 12:05 AM 33,311 68

THERE ARE CONCERNS about how enforcement of physical distancing guidelines will work in shops, businesses and manufacturing facilities once officials begin to relax restrictions.

It is unlikely that there will be any significant easing of restrictions by heath officials at the end of this week, but already some businesses are opening back up, having adapted their business model to provide takeaway services or online deliveries. 

There are ongoing discussions between the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the government and employer representative body Ibec about a protocol for a safe return to work once restrictions are relaxed and more people are going back to their workplaces.

Manufacturing division organiser for Siptu, Greg Ennis said there have already been issues in the sector even under the current strict guidelines.

“We had a lot of concerns raised in the agri sector, the meat industry in particular,” he told TheJournal.ie. He said the shop stewards have been doing everything they can do address these issues with employers and ensure there is physical distancing. 

“One of the biggest challenges is that these workplaces have not been designed for employees to work in that way”.

When more of these workplaces open up, he said ensuring physical distancing in areas like canteens or changing rooms will also be a challenge. 

Enforcement

In the case of one food manufacturer where employees were “working cheek by jowl” on a production line, Ennis said the union had to inform the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

“They went in, the facility had to stop work for a day and when they put measures in place, with PPE etc, then opened back up”.

Although the HSA has intervened in a small number of examples, Ennis said he has “real concerns the HSA will not have the necessary resources, provided by the government, to ensure compliance”.

“It’s alright having these protocols in a document – but how will they be policed?”

“We have workplaces that have two to three people working in them up to those with thousands of employees. These people are going back to their families and the wider community – if this is not policed and if there isn’t a rigorous approach, we could look at a second wave of coronavirus infection.”

The HSA has been reluctant to position itself as the enforcement authority in this area. In a statement to TheJournal.ie, it stressed that its legislative remit “encompasses occupational health and safety issues as opposed to public health”. 

“As Covid-19 is a public health matter, advice provided by the Health Service Executive (HSE) and Department of Health regarding measures to take to prevent the spread, including hand washing, respiratory etiquette and social distancing, should be followed by individuals and businesses,” it said. 

The HSA said it is advising workers and their employers to follow all public health recommendations in workplaces. 

“We’re also responding to complaints and queries from companies/employees on the public health information and addressing further, including as necessary by inspection, those matters which come within our occupational health and safety remit.”

The Health Service Executive (HSE) also confirmed that its environmental health officers are providing advice and guidance on Covid-19 containment measures to essential food businesses only. 

“They are dealing with any complaints of queries received and monitoring compliance where required,” a HSE spokesperson said. 

Retail

Last week Mandate trade union revealed results of a survey of 7,000 retail workers, which found staff at almost half the stores felt their employers were not adhering to social distancing guidelines.  The respondents were all staff at retail businesses that are considered essential, such as supermarkets. 

When asked which of the following is still happening in their workplace:

  • 46% said social distancing and crowd control measures not being adhered to;
  • 29% said they have insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • 23% said shopping trollies/baskets arenot regularly sanitised;
  • 21% said they had insufficient hand sanitiser; and
  • 18% said there were insufficient protective shields/screens.

General secretary of Mandate, John Douglas, told TheJournal.ie most employers who have been open for the last number of weeks have “caught up” now in terms of implementing physical distancing and providing PPE or screens at service areas. 

However he said the message “needs to be refreshed” as workers have reported there is a “slackening off” with the numbers of customers allowed into stores and policing of these measures in some stores.

“Even the practical things like the tape on the ground getting very worn and not being replaced, there is a slight air of complacency – both with the customers and the employers,” he said. 

“When we start to have more stores opening back up – the big hardware stores for example – people may start treating it as a bit of a day out. The last thing we want is people wandering around browsing the shelves, but how do you manage that? It doesn’t really work that way if you’re coming in to select paint or wallpaper.”

With many companies moving more of their retail business online, there will be an increase in the work some retail employees do behind closed doors, in warehouses or store rooms rather than in shops. 

Douglas said the union will be keeping an eye on these kinds of changes to ensure workers are not put at risk as the business evolves. 

He said in some of the large distribution centres, new systems have been put in place to manage this, with staff rostered across four shift periods instead of two. 

“It’s a good precautionary measure for the employer too – that way if one shift had an outbreak, they could stop that whole group coming in and still have three shift groups to keep working.”

Like Siptu’s Greg Ennis, Douglas questioned how the HSA will check that guidance is being implemented in workplaces. 

“Do they have the numbers to do unannounced inspections at warehouses and other workplace? I would be very surprised.”

No browsing

Last week David Fitzsimons from Retail Excellence Ireland said a huge level of preparenedess will be needed for retailers to re-open their doors when the government gives the go-ahead.

“We know a number of them won’t be re-opening full stop,” he told TheJournal.ie. “To ensure social distancing may not be that difficult for customers, but for staff it’ll be a huge challenge.

Imagine walking into a Vodafone shop. Or a Field’s jewellers. Staff will have to stay apart.

His organisation has made a document of guidelines for retailers for when they open again. 

Under headings like “managing the wellbeing of our colleagues and our customers” and ” “ensuring rigorous enforcement of social distancing for customers and colleagues alike”, it has a set of practical advice for those preparing a return to work.

Some large retailers are planning to accept contactless payments only when they reopen. 

Fitzsimons said that other retailers are considering actively banning the practice of browsing in, for example, clothes shops. 

Personal behaviours

Yesterday Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said that while ensuring compliance by employers will be important, the workers themselves will play a vital role. 

He said there will have to be a high level of compliance among members of the public with the basic measures such as hand washing and respiratory etiquette, such as sneezing into their elbow. 

“Things that might have been the norm before – people coming to work with coughs and colds – these will become no-nos in the future. We’ll be looking at this in the future the we might now look at somebody coming into an office and lighting up a cigarette,” he said. 

“If we get this high standard of behaviour, then there’s the role for inspection and oversight.

“But we have to get high levels of compliance on the part of both organisations and individuals in terms of their personal behaviours. Then we will need to have arrangements in place to assure ourselves that we’re getting compliance for the protection of people in those workplace and for the protection of society overall.”

- With reporting by Sean Murray.

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