knowledge | 20 February 2020 |

The Coronavirus – What do Employers Need to Consider?

Reports, including that of a potential coronavirus outbreak in the offices of a large Dublin employer, will prompt employers to consider what steps should be taken in their workplaces in relation to the coronavirus. 

What measures should employers take now?

Employers have obligations under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (the “Act”) to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and to provide a safe place of work. Employers should consider the following:

  • carry out a risk assessment to understand the likelihood of employees contracting the virus, which will depend on factors such as the nature and size of the business;
  • be mindful of whether employees have recently travelled to or are intending to travel to any region where cases of the coronavirus have been positively identified;   
  • consider reducing or temporarily suspending employees’ business travel to any of the affected regions. Where employees continue to travel, they should be advised to follow the infection control precautions outlined by the World Health Organisation (the “WHO”);
  • ensure that sanitation practices and standards in places of work are appropriate and adequate, and consider introducing additional preventative measures, such as increasing the supply of sanitation wipes at workstations;
  • provide information and training to employees on the prevention of, and limitation on, the spread of infectious diseases;
  • review relevant insurance policies; and
  • adhere to company policies and procedures when dealing with employees who may have returned from an affected region, particularly China. Where employers have concerns following an employee’s return from an affected region, an employer may require an employee to attend a medical examination to confirm the employee is fit to work.

Employers should also be cognisant of potential discrimination issues that may arise, particularly on the grounds of disability and race. This may include preventing bullying and/or harassment of employees who are of Chinese origin, and ensuring that management decisions, for example requiring certain employees to work from home, are not confined to employees of a particular ethnic background.

Employers should continue to keep up to date with guidance issued by organisations such as the WHO and the Department of Health and review their practices and procedures as required.

What should employers do where there is a suspected case of the virus?

Employers should give consideration to putting in place a contingency plan in the event that one of their employees falls ill and there are concerns they may have contracted the virus. Employees should be informed of the procedure to be followed if they are concerned they may have been exposed to the virus, which would include notifying their employer of their concerns and ensuring they do not attend work. Employers should adhere to their sickness absence policy in terms of how a suspected case of the virus is dealt with and this may include sending the employee to the organisation’s occupational health practitioner for a medical assessment. Where employers have a reasonable basis to do so, they may require an employee to attend a medical examination by a company appointed practitioner, even in the absence of this right in the employee’s contract of employment.

Where employers learn of any potential exposure to the virus, they may wish to consider requiring all of their employees, or employees at specific locations (depending on the exposure risk), to work from home. Employees who are required to work remotely should continue to be paid their usual remuneration. Where the nature of certain employees’ work is such that they cannot work remotely, they should also continue to be paid their normal remuneration for so long as they are required to absent themselves from the workplace.

Action points

Employers should carry out a risk assessment and review their employees’ business travel history in addition to considering postponing or cancelling planned business trips. Increased sanitation measures should be introduced in the workplace to reduce the risk of potentially spreading the virus. The employer’s policies and procedures should be adhered to including sick leave policies. Employers should also consider whether remote working could be offered to employees to minimise any potential risks.

How can we help?

The Employment Group at McCann FitzGerald can assist organisations in developing its response strategy, drafting communications and policies and advising on specific risk situations arising.

This briefing is for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.

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