Return to Work Safely Protocol outlines strict health measures

Stephanie Byrne-Roche

May 12 2020

With each passing week, there seems to be another Government announcement that affects employers. Of course, each announcement is designed to help businesses work through the coronavirus pandemic, which is what every business owner wants.

On May 9th, the Government introduced the Return to Work Safely Protocol (the Protocol).

What is the Protocol?

The Protocol outlines various measures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus in the workplace. These measures are mandatory and apply to all businesses.

That means that you, the employer, must put all relevant measures into practice. It also means adapting workplace procedures and practices to some extent. After all, complying fully with the new Government health protection measures is paramount.

The Protocol clearly sets out the steps employers and workers must take before a workplace reopens, and while it continues to operate. Here we take a look at some of the key issues.

1. Lead worker representative

To ensure these new measures are put into practice, you’re going to need your employees on-board. Each workplace will be required to appoint at least one ‘lead worker representative’ who will have responsibility for ensuring that the COVID-19 safety measures are adhered to.

The chosen representative will need to undertake relevant training and be provided with a framework to effectively mitigate the risk of spreading the virus in the workplace. Furthermore, the number of lead worker representatives will depend on the number of employees you have.  

2. Your COVID-19 response plan

You’ll need to consult with your lead worker representative(s) on the development and/or updating of a COVID-19 Response Plan. This will involve:

  • Updating your occupational health & safety risk assessments and safety statement.
  • Taking into account individual employee risk factors (e.g. older workers, presence of underlying medical conditions).
  • Including a response plan to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19.
  • Including the controls necessary to address the risks identified.
  • Including contingency measures to address increased rates of worker absenteeism.
  • Implementing measures necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and changing work patterns.
  • Communicating the plan to all workers.

Put in place a procedure to identify and isolate symptomatic employees

Both you the employer and your employees need to be aware of COVID-19 symptoms. You’ll also have to agree on what action to take if potentially infectious people are present in the workplace.

3. Amending employment policies and communicating them to employees

The time has come to review and amend relevant policies. For instance, your sick leave policy will need to be updated to take account of Government health advice.

You’ll need to stay up to date with the latest Government health advice and ensure that all employees are playing their part. You’ll also need to work directly with your lead worker representative on communicating health advice in the workplace if you do not already employ an occupational health expertise.

4. Planning for the return to the workplace

Before returning to the workplace, you’ll have to issue a pre-return to work form for workers to complete at least three days in advance of the return to work. This form seeks confirmation that the worker, to the best of their knowledge, has no symptoms of COVID-19. For complete clarity, the form should confirm that the worker is not self-isolating or awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.

The Protocol requires you to provide induction training for all of your employees upon returning to the workplace. That includes the latest Government health advice and guidance. You should also train your staff on what to do if they develop symptoms of COVID-19.

You’ll also need to provide training on the necessary controls identified in the risk assessment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. You may even need to implement temperature testing if Government health advice declares it necessary.

5. Dealing with a suspected case of COVID-19

The Protocol requires that each workplace has a defined response structure that identifies what team responds to a suspected case. An area within the workplace where symptomatic employees can isolate will also need to be chosen. This area in so far as is reasonably practicable, should be ventilated and stocked with tissues, hand sanitiser, PPE and clinical waste bins. 

Preventative measures you can implement

The Protocol reiterates that the best way to prevent person to person transmission of COVID-19 is to practice proper hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and physical distancing.

Hand hygiene

Upon reopening, employers will be required to provide appropriate facilities to allow employees to practice proper hand hygiene. As well as needing to instruct employees on how to effectively wash their hands, employers will also need to display posters in appropriate areas.

Respiratory hygiene

Employers will need to provide tissues and bins to dispose used tissues in, which should then be emptied regularly. Instruction on good respiratory etiquette must be provided to all employees.

Physical distancing

Physical distancing may present the greatest challenge for many businesses. For instance, handshakes are forbidden. If office work is essential, it can only be carried out in such a way that it complies with the physical distancing requirement of keeping two metres between employees.

Where a two-metre separation cannot be ensured by organisational means, physical barriers may need to be erected. Meetings should be held remotely. It may also be necessary to stagger shifts to comply with physical distancing requirements.

Cleaning the workplace

The new normal will require frequent cleaning of work areas. As an employer, you must implement thorough and regular cleaning of busy areas and surfaces such as tabletops, work equipment, door handles and handrails. These should be visibly clean at all times and cleaned at least twice daily. Cleaning intervals for rooms and work areas should be modified especially for washroom facilities and communal spaces.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Examples of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) include gloves, goggles or respiratory protection. In the context of COVID-19, all employers will need to monitor the Health Protection Surveillance Centre website to see what PPE might need to be made available in their workplaces. 

Mental health and wellbeing

Due to the current situation, it’s understandable that some employees may be suffering from anxiety or stress. Some employees may have even gone through traumatic events such as the serious illness or death of a relative or friend. Others may be experiencing financial difficulties or problems with their personal relationships.

Staff returning to the workplace after a period of isolation are also likely to have concerns about the risk of infection or changes to their job due caused by the new preventative measures.

All employers should provide workers with relevant information about the prevention and control measures taken in the workplace and confirm that measures reduce the risk of infection.

Access to an Employee Assistance Programme could prove vital during what looks set to be a challenging reopening period.


The business world will look a lot different when businesses are allowed to reopen. Ensuring you follow Government guidelines will help you reopen your business and get back to doing what you love as soon as possible.

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For advice on all of your coronavirus queries, call our expert advisors any time day or night on 0818 923 923.  

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