Returning to working safely

Introduction

Workers still working from home can return to the workplace on a phased and staggered basis. Attendance should be for specific business needs only. This restriction remains in place, even after 22 October 2021.

Guidance for employers on the return to work

This page summarises the work safely protocol published by the HSA, the HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Further guidance and an updated work safely protocol were issued in September 2021 ahead of the Government advice on the phased return to workplaces.

Employers must review their existing advice and guidance to make sure it is in line with the updated guidance.

The protocol and related guidance:

  • Describes the steps that employers and employees should take before a workplace reopens to make sure they can return to work safely
  • Sets out the minimum measures needed in every workplace to manage and prevent the spread of infection.

You can get more detailed information in the revised Work Safely Protocol (pdf) and the Guidance Note on Returning Safely to the Workplace (pdf).

The protocol gives information on the selection of hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, working from home, the use of antigen testing, vaccinations and ventilation of workplaces. There may be additional safeguards in different workplaces.

The additional guidance gives information on the use of staggered arrangements and other considerations around attendance levels.

The Health Safety Authority (HSA) website has updated checklists and templates on ventilation, rapid antigen testing and returning to the office.

The HSA will carry out workplace inspections and provide guidance for employers. If their advice is not implemented, the HSA can shut down the workplace.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) will also carry out inspections and provide guidance to employers.

Return to the workplace

Workers still working from home can return to the workplace on a phased and staggered basis.

The return to workplaces must be in a cautious and careful way. Attendance should be for specific business needs only.

The Guidance Note on Returning Safely to the Workplace (pdf) recommends that employers consider:

  • Appropriate attendance levels, keeping in mind the work safely protocol and related checklists
  • Using staggered arrangements, for example flexible working hours and part-time attendance

Return to the workplace after 22 October

It had been planned that the requirement to work from home would be removed after 22 October 2021. However, on 19 October 2021, it was announced that workers should only attend the workplace for specific business requirements.

Planning for return to work

All employers must prepare and put systems and controls in place before they reopen their business and workplaces.

Your employer must:

  • Appoint at least one lead worker representative to make sure safety measures are in place and being followed. A short online course on the role of lead worker representative can be found on the HSA website.
  • Update business and safety plans, including the business COVID-19 Response Plan, the occupational health and safety risk assessment and the safety statement. Include how to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in the safety plans and appoint a dedicated manager in charge of dealing with suspected cases.
  • Develop, consult on, communicate and implement workplace changes or policies.
  • Provide COVID-19 induction training for all staff.
  • Put in place temperature testing in line with public health advice.

Any mass COVID-19 testing needed in line with public health advice, must be on a voluntary basis. Employers must put an agreed process in place for staff who do not want to take part in the testing- see ‘Antigen testing in the workplace’ below.

Pre-return to work form

An employer must send out a pre-return to work form to employees before their return to work.

Completed forms should only be kept for as long as necessary by the employer and in line with the advice from the Data Protection Commission.

Antigen testing in the workplace

Rapid Antigen Diagnostic Tests (RADTs) can detect the presence or absence of specific antigens or proteins on the surface of the virus.

Your employer can, with your agreement, implement additional checks by setting up a RADT testing regime.

Your employer must:

  • Discuss and agree the implementation of a testing regime with you, the lead workers representative, the safety representative and the union (if there is one)
  • Agree a process for workers who do not want to take part in the RADT testing
  • Update the COVID-19 Response plan and any other policies and procedure to take account of the agreed testing policy
  • Provide training for all staff who are engaged in the RADT testing, so you can undertake the test safely and correctly
  • Agree clear protocols for managing positive cases

Any employer who is setting up an RADT testing regime, should consult the detailed guidance in section D13 of the Work Safely Protocol (pdf).

Employers must make sure that public health advice regarding hand washing, mask wearing, respiratory etiquette, physical distancing and ventilation are still fully adhered to in the workplace.

You can get more information on RADTs in Appendix F of the protocol (pdf), on the Health Products Regulatory Authority website and Checklist No. 10 on RADTs (pdf).

Vaccinations

The decision to get a vaccination against COVID-19 is voluntary. Therefore you can make your own decision about whether or not to get a vaccination.

Your employer may provide you with advice and information on the vaccination programme so that you have the necessary information to make an informed decision.

Telling your employer your vaccination status

In most cases, you do not have to tell your employer whether or not you are vaccinated. Guidance from the Data Protection Commission states that, in general, there is no legal basis to collect or process an employee’s vaccination data.

Workplace exposure to COVID-19

In some workplaces, exposure to COVID-19 may be a health risk to workers, for example workers in laboratory settings. In this case, an employer must complete a risk assessment and implement suitable control measures. Your employer can offer you a vaccination but you do not have to accept the offer.

If you decide not to accept the offer of a vaccination, your employer must review their risk assessment and decide whether you can carry out your work without vaccination, and what other protective measures are needed. In some cases, your employer may have no option but to redeploy you to another task or role. Your employer must agree this with a medical practitioner and you must be consulted.

You can get more detailed guidance on vaccinations in section D14 of the Work Safely Protocol (pdf).

Getting to and from work

You should follow public health advice and keep to physical distancing guidelines if using your personal car for work. Where sharing a car with a co-worker, a face covering should be worn. Your employer should give you hand sanitisers and cleaning equipment for your work vehicle.

You should keep windows in your work vehicle open, or partially open. Vehicle heating and ventilation systems should not be set to recirculate air.

Walk or cycle where possible.

If you are using public transport, you must wear a face covering.

Staying safe at work

Employers and employees should work together to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and know the symptoms of COVID-19. The complete list of COVID-19 symptoms is available on the HSE Website.

Employer’s responsibilities

Your employer must:

  • Have appropriate hygiene facilities in place, display posters of good hand washing practices and have proper ventilation for example open doors and windows.
  • Give tissues as well as bins or bags for employee’s disposal.
  • Empty bins regularly and provide advice on good respiratory practice, including the safe use, storage and disposal of face masks.
  • Provide for physical distancing across all work activities of at least 2 metres as much as possible. (Staggering breaks, or place teams in pods, put in place arrangements for meetings and canteen facilities, put in place a no handshaking policy, no sharing of cups or pens, adapt sign in or sign out systems). Install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards between workers were 2 metre distancing is not possible.
  • Keep a log of contacts to help with contact tracing.
  • Have regular cleaning of the workplace and provide hand sanitisers. An alcohol based sanitiser must have a minimum of 60% alcohol. See the Work Safely Protocol (pdf) for more details on cleaning and advice on choosing a hand sanitiser.
  • Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and protective clothing where there is an identified COVID-19 exposure risk and in line with public health advice. You can get more information on PPE from the HSA.
  • Make sure employees look after their mental health and well-being and are aware of any employee assistance programmes.

If an employee has symptoms of COVID-19

If an employee has symptoms of the virus during work hours, your employer must have a designated isolation area for employees and must follow a specific procedure:

  • The designated manager must direct the person to a designated isolation area, along a designated route (make provisions for one or more persons displaying symptoms such as an additional isolation area or have contingency plans in place)
  • Maintain a 2 metre distance
  • Provide a face mask for the person presenting with symptoms. The worker should wear the mask if in a common area with other people or while exiting the premises
  • Arrange for the employee to stay in isolation before arranging for them to be transported home, or to a medical facility, public transport should not be used.
  • Arrange for appropriate cleaning of the isolation area and work areas
  • Carry out a full risk assessment of the incident to see what, if any, further action needs to be taken

Employee’s responsibilities

As an employee, you should:

  • Follow the public health advice and guidance
  • Work together with your employer and follow any specific procedures and instructions from your employer to keep safe
  • Undergo any voluntary mass COVID-19 testing (if you agree to this) needed in line with public health advice – see ‘Antigen testing in the workplace’ above
  • Adopt good hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing, respiratory etiquette and physical distancing
  • Get professional healthcare advice if you are unwell
  • Not go to work if you have any symptoms of COVID-19
  • Let your employer know if you believe there are reasons why it is not safe for you to be at work, or if you are concerned that you could be putting a member of your household at risk
  • Undertake a medical risk assessment with an Occupational Health practitioner or your GP before returning to work, if you are in the very high risk (extremely vulnerable) category
  • Wear a face covering in specific areas of the office, where physical distancing is difficult

Where can I make a complaint?

The Health and Safety Authority is responsible for making sure businesses comply with the Work Safely Protocol. If you feel your employer is not meeting the standards in this protocol you can raise their concerns with the HSA. The HSA will address the concerns with your employer.

You can make a complaint using the HSA’s online complaint form. You should raise your concern with your employer first to give them a chance to fix the issue.

Further information

Everyone should stay safe and make themselves aware of the advice in the work safely protocol (pdf) and the Guidance Note on Returning Safely to the Workplace from 20 September (pdf).

Employers can get return to work COVID-19 templates and checklists from the HSA and COVID-19 posters and signs from the HSE. The HSA also have return to work safely online courses.

The Skillnet Ireland ReBound initiative gives small businesses online training and mentoring on implementing the return to work safely protocol.

Employers can get information on the financial supports and business advice available to help with their cash flow, payroll and long-term investments.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) has COVID-19 Business Continuity Guides and technical resources.

Health and Safety Authority

The Metropolitan Building
James Joyce Street
Dublin 1
D01 K0Y8

Opening Hours: Lines are open on Monday to Fridays 9am - 3pm
Tel: (01) 614 7000
Locall: 1890 28 93 89
Fax: (01) 614 7020
Email: wcu@hsa.ie
Page edited: 19 October 2021