Returning to work safely
From Monday, 24 January 2022, workers can return to the workplace on a phased basis.
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.
The latest work safely protocol was issued in January 2022. It reflects updated public health advice for cases, close contacts and facemasks.
Employers should 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 masks or 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
From Monday, 24 January 2022, workers can return to the workplace on a phased basis.
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.
- The employee must submit the form before they return to work.
- The form will ask employees to confirm they have not had symptoms of COVID-19 in the past 10 days, have not been diagnosed or suspected of COVID-19 in the past 10 days, have not been in close contact with someone confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 in the past 10 days and are not restricting their movements or self-isolating.
- You can get a return to work form template from the HSA website.
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.
If an employee has symptoms of COVID-19, they should self-isolate and follow HSE advice on testing and mask wearing. Even if they receive a negative RADT result, they should continue to isolate until 48 hours after the symptoms have substantially or fully resolved
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. The Work Safely Protocol does not currently require employers to collect any information regarding vaccination status and this is not required for pre-Return to Work forms. Updated guidance from the Data Protection Commission confirms this.
However, an employer may have a legitimate reason to know whether you or vaccinated or not as a necessary health and safety measure (pdf). An employer’s decision that it requires knowledge of employees’ vaccination status should be subject to a risk assessment and based on any sector-specific guidance.
In the course of carrying out their public health duties, a Medical Officer of Health may require access to the vaccination status of employees, where an outbreak of COVID-19 has been identified in a workplace. This is specifically permissible under data protection law when it is at the request of the Medical Officer of Heath, carried out on a case-by-case basis and is determined as necessary.
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.
Your employer must:
- Have appropriate hygiene facilities readily available, display posters of good hand washing practices and have adequate 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 well-fitted medical grade or respirator 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
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 workunder any circumstances if you have any symptoms of COVID-19, self-isolate and get a test as soon as possible (you can get advice on the type of test required and the steps you should take on the HSE website)
- 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 mask or covering in specific areas of the office, where physical distancing is difficult
- If identified as a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19, follow the close contact advice on the HSE website
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.
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 (pdf).
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.