How should employers handle the coronavirus outbreak?

Stephanie Byrne-Roche

February 13 2020

Although there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Ireland to date, the situation is quickly evolving. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and must take reasonable steps to protect the health & safety of their workforce.

Below are some of the main issues that will affect employers as a result of the recent virus outbreak. To ensure you’re best prepared, we’ve also covered how to deal with them.

Wellbeing

It’s important to remember that your employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect your employees’ health & safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing. Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme

Give employees the facts

The risk of anyone who has not recently been to China picking up the infection is very low ─ unless someone they’re close to has the virus. Risk of becoming infected will differ depending on personal circumstances, but it’s important to convey to employees the reality of the situation to keep concern proportionate to the risk.

Business travel

The advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs is ‘to avoid all non-essential travel to and within China.’ Consider alternatives to any planned travel to China, e.g. postponing a trip or carrying out meetings via Skype. If travel is deemed necessary, then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk.

Always know where your employees are and where they’re going. Ensure they’re given clear instructions on hygiene. If employees report symptoms of the virus while they’re travelling, you will have to support them. You should also consider making plans to enable any of your employees who are based in China to return to Ireland. 

Employees returning from affected areas 

Employees returning from China should contact their local Department of Public Health for advice on measures that may need to be taken for 14 days following their return to Ireland. It may be the case that an employee shows symptoms of novel coronavirus, including cough, fever, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing on arrival or at any time in the 14 days following their return. If this is the case, they should self-isolate immediately and phone their GP or emergency department rather than turning up in person.

Employees who have recently returned from China will be prioritised by their local Department of Public Health. Non-symptomatic employees returning from places outside of the Hubei province can still attend work. Still, if you have concerns (particularly if it’s known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on full pay on precautionary grounds.

Existing health conditions

When determining your response to the virus, pay particular attention to the needs of certain employees who may be vulnerable. This includes those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as those who are pregnant or are older.

Discrimination, bullying and harassment 

Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their nationality. You should be alert to ‘banter’ and other instances of harassment between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity. Throughout it all, ensure your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.

Hygiene measures 

The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures are:

  • Frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue – throw the tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.
  • If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, phone your GP (do not visit the GP surgery) and tell your GP if you have been in China in the last 14 days.

Need our help?

If you would like further complimentary advice on workplace health & safety from an expert, our advisors are ready to take your call any time day or night. Call us on 1890 252 923 or request a callback here.

To further ensure you abide by required health & safety standards in your workplace, download our free Health & Safety guide.  

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