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Coronavirus - Health and Safety update - COVID-19 and how to manage the risks of working alone - Ireland

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Many organisations are finalising preparations for the COVID-19 pandemic, with HR and Environment Health & Safety (EHS) teams being inundated with concern from management and employees demanding information and clear-cut action plans. It is a difficult task to balance the potential disruption to business and commercial consequences of taking an overly-cautious approach. What is clear is that organisations need to assess the risk on a continuing basis.

It is a fundamental principle of Irish Health and Safety legislation that employers do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect the health and safety of their employees at work. However, what if you get it wrong and hindsight is used to accuse you or your organisation of exposing people to unnecessary risks? In these cases, it is invaluable to be able to point to a written risk assessment, or similar document, showing that you have taken into account factors on all sides before reaching a decision on what is ‘reasonably practicable’ that is kept under review.

Ultimately, assessing risk means that anything in the workplace that could cause harm to your employees, other employees and other people (including customers, visitors and members of the public) must be carefully examined.

It is advisable to:

• Be wary of ‘presenteeism’. With sick, or potentially sick, employees still attempting to make it into work, it is now more important than ever to protect employee wellbeing and safeguard business productivity as far as possible.
• Develop your plans, taking into account the demographics and vulnerabilities (such as those who are pregnant; with impaired immunity; on secondment or working away from home) of your staff and those impacted by your operations. Assess the risk to your employees – do not be blindly led by what others are doing. You know your business better than anyone else.
• Remember to personalise, so far as reasonably practicable, your procedures to your specific workers and those affected by your operations. For example, exposing a twenty-year-old employee to potential infection will not be the same risk as someone whose age or underlying health condition makes them more vulnerable.
• Bear in mind it is a marathon, not a sprint. In a situation of great uncertainty, employers need to focus on maintaining their employees’ trust and confidence by showing leadership; following government guidance; and by acting fairly, reasonably and consistently. Follow all relevant HSA and HSE guidance and risk assess carefully any derogations from it.

Working from home

Following the Taoiseach’s announcement on 12 March, it is best practice for employers to ensure that employees who can work from home do so as soon as possible. Employers should actively work with employees to significantly minimise the number of people in the office or place of work. It is arguable that an employer may be liable if an employee could have worked from home but was not facilitated in doing so and was then infected with the virus in the work environment.

Having assessed the risk to their employees, some organisations are now encouraging their employees to prepare to work from home if possible. For many businesses, working remotely may be an effective way of controlling the potential spread of COVID-19. An employer has the same responsibility for the safety and health of employees who work from home as for any other employees.

Unless it is managed correctly, working from home can bring with it additional risks to employers under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (“SHWWA”). It is a matter of balance; a bespoke approach is required depending on the nature of the business and the risks involved.

It will often be safe to work alone. However, Section 19 of SHWWA requires you to think about and deal with any health and safety risks before people are allowed to do so. These responsibilities cannot be transferred to any other person, including to those who work alone. Lone workers face the same hazards at work as anyone else, but there is a greater risk of these hazards causing harm as they may not have anyone to help or support them should something happen.

It is advisable to:

• Remind employees that they themselves have a responsibility to help their employer fulfil this duty to ensure their health and safety.
• Assess the risk to your employees. Do not fall into the trap of adopting a one size fits all approach. The risks of a lone worker on an industrial factory line are not the same as those faced by secretarial staff working from home.
• Do not forget risk assessment should be ongoing and identify foreseeable events. Do not simply assess the risk in week one and fail to reassess the risk at appropriate intervals. Provide training, supervision, monitoring and support for lone workers.
• Remember effective communication is key. Arrange a regular ‘virtual check-in’ and remind employees of the availability of provision of counselling and support services. If contact is poor, employees may feel disconnected, isolated or abandoned, which can affect their performance and potentially their stress levels or mental health.

How we can help

Our dedicated Health and Safety team at Eversheds Sutherland aims to help organisations identify their shortcomings and meet their health and safety obligations. From offices in Dublin and Belfast, and connection to professional health and safety lawyers around the world, we share our professional experience of working with organisations who have had serious incidents to help others avoid such outcomes. Our approach mirrors that of the Health and Safety Authority in Ireland – “prevention is better than cure”.

Our Health and Safety and Employment Law teams have created a number of useful template documents in light of the COVID-19 crisis that you may find of benefit. Please get in touch with Stephen Barry or your usual Eversheds Sutherland contact for a copy of our employee communications and reasonable use of equipment letter.

For support on legal issues facing your business in light of the outbreak of Covid-19, please visit our Coronavirus hub to get our latest information and guidance.

This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full terms and conditions on our website.

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