Will you need to wear a face mask when you return to the office? What can employers do now to prepare? We asked William Fry’s Ailbhe Dennehy.
Over the coming weeks and months, employers will need to follow Government guidelines to ensure the safety of their staff as they return to shared workplaces.
But what does this mean in terms of face coverings? We spoke to Ailbhe Dennehy, a partner in the employment and benefits department at William Fry, to learn more.
What is the current Government advice for face coverings in the workplace?
Earlier this month, the Government published the Return to Work Safely Protocol, outlining steps for employers and staff to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 in the workplace.
According to the guide, face masks and coverings are not strictly mandatory for people returning to communal offices. Instead, it recommends using face masks where “reasonably practicable” in certain workplace scenarios, such as when there is a suspected case of Covid-19 or where the recommended two metres of physical distancing is not possible.
It recommends that the employer provide a mask for a person presenting symptoms of Covid-19 “if one is available”, Dennehy explained.
“The protocol also notes that the worker with suspected symptoms should wear the mask if in a common area with other people or while exiting the premises,” she said.
“It’s important to note that the protocol is non-exhaustive and will be kept under review and updated in line with evolving public health guidance,” Dennehy advised. “The use of face masks should have regard to public health advice that is reviewed and updated from time to time and the recently published Government guidance on the use of face coverings.”
What do employees returning to offices need to keep in mind?
As an employee, what are the main points about face coverings you need to be aware of when returning to the office?
“When it comes to wearing face coverings, Government guidance recommends coverings, not masks, be worn by individuals on public transport or where the recommended two metres of physical distancing can’t be maintained,” Dennehy said.
Will there be penalties for employers that don’t adhere to the Government guidelines?
As an employer, what will happen if the requirements outlined in the protocol aren’t met? According to Dennehy, while the protocol does not set out any specific penalties for non-compliance, it explicitly states that the steps are mandatory.
“A failure to comply with these guidelines to a ‘reasonably practicable’ extent will likely impact an employer’s ability to assert it has ensured a safe place of work for its employees,” she said. “A failure to ensure such a safe place of work carries risk for both employers and potential personal liability for their officers and directors.
“Offences under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 can attract upper-limit sanctions of a fine of up to €3m and/or two years’ imprisonment for each offence.”
Where should companies start?
To ensure compliance with the current Government guidelines, how should an employer begin preparations as Covid-19 restrictions are eased and more people return to workplaces across Ireland?
“My advice to employers generally when it comes to reopening their workplaces is to be proactive in their back-to-work preparations and keep a close eye on how its protective and preventative measures line up with what the protocol recommends,” Dennehy said.
She emphasised that a “tick-the-box” approach simply won’t be enough. Instead, employers will need to develop a “considered and comprehensive Covid-19 response plan with collaborative input from both the employer and employees addressing each of the recommended protocol steps”.
For employers that are nervous about getting it right, Dennehy advised: “The best approach is to be well-informed of the current recommended guidance regarding the use of face masks and to keep the current public health advice under review.
“Bespoke induction training for all staff before returning to the workplace – including in relation to the wearing of face masks as necessary – is also required.”
What if an employee refuses a mask?
If, for the reasons outlined above, face masks are deemed necessary for a company and a staff member refuses to wear one, what should the employer do?
“A considered and reasonable approach is recommended on the part of the employer to understand the employee’s rationale for not wanting to wear a mask,” Dennehy advised.
“For example, certain vulnerable employees may be unable to wear masks for medical reasons. Disciplinary action in such a situation may amount to discrimination on grounds of disability.”
Other things to consider
Along with all of the above, there are other things employers need to be mindful of when it comes to face coverings and returning to work.
For example, employers should conduct a thorough, Covid-19-specific risk assessment to understand the steps needed to mitigate risks in their own workplace. This may include requiring staff to wear face masks, Dennehy said.
If face masks are a necessity, the employer should provide them for staff and ensure that they meet adequate standards. Employers will also need to make sure that staff are properly trained on how to wear, handle and dispose of masks.
“The protocol notes that where masks are being worn by employees they should be clean and they should not be shared or handled by colleagues,” Dennehy said.
Finally, employees should be thoroughly briefed on the fact that wearing face masks is not a substitute for other methods of preventing the spread of Covid-19, such as physical distancing and hygiene measures.
Currently, there is no Government communication around how long the measures outlined in the Return to Work Safely Protocol will be mandatory for companies. It will be updated in line with evolving public health advice.
“The protocol places an onus on both employers and workers to keep up to date with the latest public health advice issued in regard to masks by the Government,” Dennehy said.