Return to work: Government-led group drawing up strict safety protocols

Health and Safety Authority, unions and businesses feeding into plan

A protocol including detailed plans of how businesses will reopen is being worked on by Government, unions and businesses in conjunction with the Health and Safety Authority, the body responsible for workplace safety.

It will include strict guidelines for employers on key issues such as social distancing in the workplace and what steps they are expected to take to ensure employee and, where relevant, customer safety on their premises.

As well as social distancing, it will cover areas such as the availability of washing facilities and guidelines for the cleaning of workplaces.

The protocol will also look at the area of travel to and from work, with a key goal being the avoidance of peak-time crowds on public transport.


Employers will be expected to keep staff working from home where possible, certainly in the early months of reopening. Employers will also be told that they need to be flexible in starting and finishing times as a further measure to avoid peak-time crushes on public transport. Employees will be told that they should not travel to work in full cars.

Employees will be given a way to raise concerns if they feel their employer is not providing a safe workplace.

This work, being co-ordinated by a group chaired by the Taoiseach called the Local Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) – which includes employer and union representatives as well as senior Ministers and public servants – will then feed into the roadmap for reopening the various sectors of the economy over a period of time, depending on the path of the virus and also the experience in workplaces. The exact timing has still to be decided. However, there is speculation among sources that this may involve construction and non-essential manufacturing work returning by around the middle of May, at least in cases where appropriate distancing can be guaranteed.

Construction sector

The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) brought forward its own new operating procedure for the building sector, including rules on social distancing and having a designated person on site to oversee compliance with Covid-19 rules.

Discussions in the LEEF focus on an economy-wide approach, with trade unions pushing for detailed guidelines and implementation procedures to keep employees as safe as possible. This has seen the HSA pulled in and the development of the detailed protocol.

Most construction work was halted at the end of March, along with work in non-essential manufacturing, including areas of medtech and engineering. Manufacturing judged to be essential included the IT and pharma sectors, which have continued.

Construction and the currently closed part of the manufacturing sector should be able to get up and running fairly quickly and move significant numbers off Government income and wage supports.

In response to a query, the HSA said it was supporting the Government's efforts to get businesses back up and running while ensuring the health and safety of workers. It said it was involved in discussions with other Government bodies – believed to be the HSE and the Department of Health – and other stakeholders.

Cliff Taylor

Cliff Taylor

Cliff Taylor is an Irish Times writer and Managing Editor