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Explained: 8 key points from the Return to Work Safely Protocol

13 May 2020

What will Irish employers need to do before returning to workplaces after Covid-19? We take a look at some of the Government’s requirements.

The Government has introduced a new Return to Work Safely Protocol, outlining the steps employers and employees will need to take to ensure that the reopening of workplaces over the coming weeks and months won’t cause a surge in Covid-19 cases.

When it was published, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys, TD, said that “collaboration between employers and workers will be central to the success of our return to work”. To help keep you up to date, we’ve outlined some of the key aspects of the Government’s protocol below, from staggered breaks to a ban on handshakes.

Lead worker representatives

According to the protocol, each workplace must nominate at least one “lead worker representative” who will work with the company’s Covid-19 response management team to ensure safety measures are being followed.

For larger companies, there will need to be a proportionate number of representatives to ensure successful compliance among employees. All employers will be required to give their representatives the necessary training to carry out the role.

Company Covid-19 response plans

Every company must set out a Covid-19 response plan that the lead worker representative will help roll out. Companies that already have a plan in place will be required to revise and update it where necessary before employees can return to site.

Employer response plans will need to address the level of risk the workplaces pose to employees and individual risk factors they might have, such as age or underlying health conditions. Plans must also include the controls necessary to address any health and safety risks identified, and contingency measures to deal with potential staff absences.

Responding to suspected Covid-19 cases

All companies will also need to prepare their protocols for dealing with suspected Covid-19 cases among staff. Here, the Government advises that employers create and maintain a log of any employee contact and group work to facilitate contact tracing if a potential case does arise.

Employers will also be required to display accurate information on Covid-19 symptoms and up-to-date information on HSE and Government advice, and provide instructions for workers to follow if they develop any of these symptoms at work.

Along with a lead worker representative, response plans will need to nominate a person or team responsible for responding to suspected Covid-19 cases in the organisation. An easily accessed isolation area must also be identified away from other workers, ideally behind a closed door.

An important thing to note is that employees will be responsible for staying informed and monitoring themselves for symptoms. If an employee believes they have begun to develop symptoms while at work, they will be required to tell their managers immediately.

Sick leave and flexibility

A critical aspect of the Return to Work Safely Protocol is employer sick-leave policies, which will need to be reviewed and amended as appropriate before returning to the workplace.

For employers with a designated occupational health service, this should be made readily available for employee concerns, and provide training and advice on recommended measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Otherwise, companies must pay particular attention to making HSE advice accessible and communicating this to staff.

The protocol highlights the potential need for any “temporary restructuring of work patterns” to prioritise the health and safety of employees, as well as clear messaging around remaining flexible and adaptable.

It also places emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, saying employers should put supports in place for staff suffering from anxiety or stress.

Prioritising at-risk employees

Physical distancing of two metres is recommended at all times to reduce the spread of infection. Employers must also implement a strict “no-handshake policy”.

The protocol states that at-risk employees must be “preferentially supported to maintain a physical distance of two metres” in the workplace. However, if at all possible, at-risk workers should be told to work from home.

For all employees, companies must provide hygiene facilities, and advice and training on correct hygiene procedures such as handwashing and respiratory hygiene.

If hygiene masks are worn, they will need to be clean and cannot be shared or handled by other colleagues. The protocol states, however, that masks are not a substitute for other safety and hygiene measures.

Grouped teams and staggered breaks

Staff breaks and rest periods will need to be organised to facilitate physical distancing. Employees who work together should be organised into small groups that consistently work and take breaks together.

If adequate physical distancing can’t be implemented during breaks, companies are advised to close canteen facilities and provide workers with information on delivery options instead. If keeping the canteen open, layouts will need to be rearranged and its use will need to be staggered.


At least three days before a company’s return to work, employees will be required to complete a pre-return to work form, which will be issued by employers. In the form, employees will have to confirm that they are not waiting on results of a Covid-19 test, that they are not self-isolating and that they are not displaying any Covid-19 symptoms.

Minimising contact

To comply with physical distancing regulations as much as possible, the protocol states that where keeping adequate space between workers isn’t possible, other measures must be taken. These include physical barriers, such as clear ‘sneeze guards’ between workers, and minimising direct contact.

As noted by the employment and benefits team at William Fry, the Return to Work Safely Protocol is a “living document” that is non-exhaustive and will be updated as needed.

The William Fry team said: “To ensure they are ready to reopen safely when the time comes, employers should take this opportunity to read the protocol and examine their policies and procedures to ensure compliance and best practice.”

Read the Return to Work Safely Protocol in full here.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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