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Workplaces threatened with closure if stringent safety measures are not followed - when country goes back to work

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Hundreds of workplaces are facing unannounced inspections and may be shut down in the coming weeks if they fail to comply with stringent new measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

The Health and Safety Authority has already carried out over 400 workplace on-site inspections and investigations under occupational health and safety law since March and will now have the powers to enforce new mandatory public health guidance.

The Government's Return to Work safety protocol for workplaces includes regulations for social distancing, hand hygiene, first aid and mental health support for returning workers.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys said: "HSA inspectors will be able to take appropriate enforcement actions under the Health and Safety Act 2005. This means if a business does not co-operate and comply with public health guidelines after being asked to make improvements, the HSA will be able to order them to shut down the workplace."

HSA chief executive Dr Sharon McGuinness said that every single complaint about a workplace would be followed up with an employer and this could include unannounced on-site inspections.

Under the plan, employers will be asked to develop a Covid-19 business response plan prior to reopening, which will address risk and its response to virus infections in the workplace.

The protocol also states that employees, who will be returning to work, will need additional support for stress caused by financial reasons, a death of a relative or difficulties with personal relationships. They will also have to complete a pre-return to work form which will state that they have not been in contact with the virus.

Employers will then have to appoint a lead worker representative, who will be in charge of ensuring that health measures are "strictly adhered to" by staff.

There must also be induction training for all workers on public health guidance, how the workplace is organised to address risk, and any other relevant sector-specific advice.

The protocol urges for a no-handshake policy to be implemented as well as temperature testing, social distancing, hand sanitiser and tissue provision.

The wearing of face coverings is stated to be "not a replacement" for other hygiene measures.

According to the protocol, remote working should be encouraged and free office space should be used as isolation areas for staff who are exhibiting virus symptoms.

Under the protocols, staff who display coronavirus symptoms during the working day will be directed to this designated isolation area by a manager.

A two-metre distance will have to be maintained as transportation is arranged for the worker to go home or to get medical attention and they will have to avoid public transport. Logs of work groups will have to be put in place for contact tracing and a risk assessment of any incident would have to be carried out.

Plastic sneeze guards at workplaces, where two-metre separation social distancing is not possible, should also be put in place.

Some aspects of the protocol will vary from different workplaces, but the document sets out "overarching principals" which must be followed.

The measures will have to be implemented in businesses, offices and construction sites.

"The protocol is mandatory and the HSA will be in charge of its oversights and implementation," Ms Humphreys said at Government Buildings. "This document sets the minimum measures required in every workplace.

"We all want businesses to reopen and people to get back to work," added the minister. "We all want Ireland to get back to work but it has to happen safely."

The plans were developed in a "collaborative effort" by the Department of Business along with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, employers' group Ibec, and the Construction Industry Federation (CIF).

The Department of Health and the HSE were also involved and the Health and Safety Authority will enforce the rules.

The HSA will appoint inspectors to work "collaboratively" with employers to make improvements if necessary and workplaces will be ordered to shut down if they are not implemented.

CIF director general Tom Parlon welcomed the new protocols and said construction companies will be carrying out site safety assessments to 'Covid-proof' building sites around the country to prepare for a gradual return to work.

"Companies are being sensible and practical and carrying out assessments, modifying sites, shutting canteen facilities, appointing compliance officers, liaising with workers representatives.

"We've seen on sites in Ireland that were able to operate during the last month, and in every other EU construction industry, that these measures work," he said.

ICTU General Secretary Patricia King said that employers had an "absolute duty" to implement the protocol. "There can be no short-cuts or opt-outs when it comes to matters of life and death," she said. Chambers Ireland said the protocol is an "essential framework".

Ibec's chief executive Danny McCoy said the protocol "will provide confidence to employers and employees that safety and well-being can be securely managed as we begin to reopen our economy."

Sunday Independent