As lockdown eases, employers must protect workers from Covid-19

Whether it‘s implementing social distancing practices or providing PPE, businesses have a legal obligation to keep their workers safe.

The impact of Covid-19 on all our lives has been profound. As a result of the measures put in place by the government to contain the spread of the virus, a large proportion of the population has been effectively housebound for the past several weeks.

Many have been laid off and face an uncertain future. For a considerable number of those fortunate enough to remain in employment, remote working has become the new normal.

Meanwhile, our essential workers have continued to go to work and interact with the public, despite the highly contagious nature of this disease.

There have been well-reported issues regarding the availability of quality personal protective equipment (PPE) in our hospitals and care homes, while in certain other sectors workers have also expressed a desire for PPE.

As the Taoiseach and his ministers oversee the gradual easing of restrictions with a view to “reopening Ireland”, employers should be aware of their obligations insofar as the workplace is concerned.

Despite the uncertainty of these times, the statutory obligations placed on employers are clear. Section 8(1) of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 requires every employer to ensure, “so far as is reasonably practicable”, the safety, health and welfare of employees in the workplace.

This duty extends to providing and maintaining a safe place of work, a safe system of work and the provision of suitable PPE where risks cannot be eliminated or adequately controlled by alternative means.

So, what does this mean in practice? Employers must identify and assess the hazards present in their workplace with a view to putting adequate safeguards in place to protect their employees’ health.

In the current context, this would include making provision for the protection of employees against the risk of contracting Covid-19 while at work.

Appropriate measures

What is required will, of course, vary depending on the nature of the employment. Based upon our success in flattening the curve thus far, it is clear that the risk of infection can be mitigated significantly by appropriate social distancing measures.

Some employers will be able to build upon the experience gleaned to date by implementing work practices designed to minimise physical interactions.

For instance, employees could be required to work from home for part of the week so as to minimise the numbers on the premises at any one time. Meetings and presentations could be conducted remotely, and strict physical distancing measures could be applied within the premises.

If this can be achieved successfully, there may be little, if any, necessity for PPE for those workers who are present in the workplace.

However, such distancing will simply not be possible in many workplaces where close contact with co-workers and the public is an unavoidable feature of the working day.

As Covid-19 is highly contagious, there will be a real risk of infection for those working in these types of environments, and in those circumstances, there will likely be an onus on employers to provide appropriate PPE to minimise that risk.

This begs the question, what is appropriate? The precise form of PPE required will depend on the nature of the working environment and the work being undertaken. Employers should study the guidance issued in relation to PPE by the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control.

In addition, continual engagement with staff is advisable and suggestions should be considered. Some may even wish to seek expert advice.

Employers should be aware, however, that they are required to ensure that all PPE provided to employees has the appropriate ‘CE’ marking in compliance with the European Union (Personal Protective Equipment) Regulations 2018. It is imperative, therefore, that employers are rigorous in ensuring that PPE is obtained from reputable sources.

As a country, we are in uncharted waters. The situation is continually evolving, and as we emerge from lockdown, it is important that employers keep their work practices under constant review.

A failure to comply with the statutory obligations imposed could have grave consequences, not only for the staff, whose health is of paramount importance, but also for the business itself.


Sunday Business Post
June 2020