With the first confirmed case of Coronavirus or COVID-19 being reported in Ireland, we take a look at how this pandemic will affect Irish employers.

Introduction

Employers will face increased pressure over the coming weeks and months to take steps to uphold their obligations regarding workplace health and safety. Employers owe a duty of care to each and every employee to put in place policies to deal with the risk posed by the virus. The following are our tips to assist employers in their policy formation.

WHO Guidelines

The World Health Organisation has released a 10 step guideline for the public to minimise the spread of infection. This can be found at: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public. This guide should be circulated to staff in order to raise awareness in how best to prevent the spread of the virus.

In addition to these, supplemental measures may also include: providing alcohol-based hand sanitisers, ensuring adequate ventilation in the workplace and remind employees to remain at home if they present with flu-like symptoms.

A pre-emptive approach

Given that the instances of infection are set to rise, it is essential that employers are prepared to adapt to the challenge of limiting the risk of spread of infection. Employers may consider facilitating employees to work from home or allow them to work remotely where possible. Employers may encourage employees to contact clients or customers over the phone, through email or via video link, instead of in person. This may also be used for internal business meetings. A framework or policy should be devised in relation to this as soon as possible. A pre-emptive approach in this regard will enable employees to continue their roles while limiting the risk of the spread of infection.

Practical steps

  • As hand washing is one of the most effective defences, employers need to make sure that employees have ready access to washing facilities and that those are kept well stocked with soap and (ideally) paper towels.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes should be distributed throughout the workplace.
  • All frequently touched surfaces such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs should be routinely cleaned.
  • Increased cleaning of common areas using standard cleaning agents can also reduce risk of spread of respiratory disease.
  • Unless they’re delivering health care, there’s no need for organizations to stockpile face masks, as these are in short supply and the CDC doesn’t recommend their use by healthy people to protect against infection.

Independent Medical Assessment

An employer could require an employee to undergo an independent medical assessment where:

  • the employer has a reasonable suspicion that an employee may be infected with the coronavirus; and
  • there is an express provision within the employee’s contract (or sickness absence policy) providing for such a referral.

In the circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak, referring an employee for a Medical Assessment may be deemed reasonable to enable an employer to ensure a safe place of work.

Review your Policies

Should it become necessary for a workplace to close, employers should request that employees work from home where possible and continue to pay as normal. Appropriate lines of communication should be set up if not already in place, to ensure employees are kept up to date with information from the business.

In the event that the workplace is forced to close, contractual obligations to pay employees must be upheld, failure to do so may lead to breach of contract or payment of wage claims against the employer.

Employers may also wish to review employment terms in their contracts for force majeure situations & review their leave policies.

Employers may also wish to speak with their Insurance providers in relation to issues surrounding office closure and pandemics.

Conclusion

  • Employers should monitor government advice and keep up to date on the latest developments. This can be done by visiting:

https://www.who.int/

https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/coronavirus.html

https://www.gov.ie/en/campaigns/c36c85-covid-19-coronavirus/

  • Employers should ensure that an appropriate framework is set up to assist employees if they should need to work from home.
  • Employers ought to review their employment terms to ensure any possible change in circumstance shall be provided for.

If you would like to discuss the potential impact of this issue on your business, please contact Ita Flanagan ioflanagan@sweeneymcgann.com or Aoife Hennessey ahennessy@sweeneymcgann.com or contact our office on 061-317533