Key role for HSA in Government’s return to work plans

As the Government, with employers and trade unions, strives to get agreement on a national return to work protocol, the HSA has been assigned the key role in the protection of workers’ health and safety.

The Government’s Roadmap for Reopening Society & Business states the national protocol is being finalised by the Government, employers and trade unions, with the assistance of the HSA. The role envisaged for the Authority is one of inspection and enforcement, to ensure compliance with the Government’s rules on return to work.

The Government says employers, employees and the public will need to have confidence that they will continue to be protected in going about their business. The Roadmap notes that there are existing monitoring and enforcement mechanisms across a number of state departments and agencies. Those mechanisms will, it is stated, need to evolve as the process of restarting economic activity develops.

While the involvement of the HSA in the Government’s return to work plans has been discussed at the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) for some weeks, the proposed role for the HSA was thrust in to the forum of public debate when ICTU general secretary, Patricia King, speaking on Workers’ Memorial Day, said the national protocol must address the issue of health and safety and the HSA as the regulator must be involved (see HSR News Briefing, Tuesday April 28th).

The wording in the Roadmap that the national protocol is being finalised suggests the Government was having difficulties getting agreement between employers and trade unions. Speaking on the RTE television news just after the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar addressed the nation, RTEs employment correspondent Ingrid Miley quoted Ms King as saying the national protocol is not yet sorted out. What has been proposed is not acceptable to ICTU, which believes the safety at work protocols are not up to standard.

The publication of the Roadmap has been welcomed by Ibec, whose CEO, Danny McCoy, says the roadmap will assist greatly with a phased, safe and much-needed return for businesses which have been closed as a result of the Covid-19 measures.

Speaking to HSR following the publication of the Roadmap, HSA chief executive Dr Sharon McGuinness said the Authority will be working with and supporting the Government to implement the national protocol and achieve the objectives of a safe and healthy return to work.

It is clear from Ms King’s remarks and the Government’s wording in the Roadmap that a lot of negotiation between the Government, the employer representative bodies and trade unions remained to flesh out the national protocol on a safe return to work.

The Roadmap sets out five stages on return to work. During the first phase from May 18th to June 7th:

Registered childcare workers will be able to provide support in an essential healthcare worker’s home.
Schools will be open to allow teachers access for organisation and distribution of remote learning.
Applying a risk-based approach, outdoor workers (construction workers and gardeners) will be permitted to return to work.
Continued remote working by all businesses that can do so.
Open hardware stores, garden centres, farmers’ markets.
During the second phase from June 8th to June 28th:

Allow phased return of solitary and other workers who can maintain social distancing;
Open marts where social distancing can be maintained;
Open small retail outlets where numbers can be controlled;
Open libraries.
During the third phase from June 29th to July 19th:

Open creches, childminding places and pre-schools for children of essential workers;
Phase in the opening of non-essential retail outlets with street level access;
Open cafes and restaurants where social distancing can be applied and strict cleaning in operation.
During the fourth phase from July 20th to August 9th
Open creches, childminding and pre-schools on a phased basis for children of all workers;
Loosening restrictions on services such as hairdressers and barbers;
Open museums and galleries, religious places of worship, and public swimming pools;
Open hotels, hostels, caravan parks on a limited occupancy basis, but hotel bars to remain closed.
The final phase commences on August 10th, allowing for the opening of:

Schools, universities and third level colleges;
Opening of enclosed shopping centres;
Open theatres and cinemas, gyms and dance studios.
The permitted openings are predicated on principles of social distancing, handwashing, sanitising and cleaning been observed. It is presumably against these standards that health and safety will be measured in the first instance.

In the event of a worker contracting Covid-19 because of occupational exposure, the principles of health and safety legislation and the hierarchy of prevention will apply.

Given that Covid-19 is an infectious disease for reporting purposes and as such is reportable to a medical health officer – but that viruses are biological agents – the Biological Agents Regulations will apply to many workplaces where their application would not normally arise. This will prove challenging for many, especially smaller businesses.

The issues for the Government, employers and trade unions, as they finalise the details of the national protocol, are far wider than inspection of workplaces, which has been the issue that has attracted attention in public debate. A lot remains to be done.

Source: Health and Safety Review