COVID-19 and a Changing Workplace – Government Issues Guidance on the use of Face Coverings
The Department of Health has issued guidance recommending the use of face coverings in public places. We consider the implications for employers and employees in advance of returning to work.

 

On 15 May 2020, the Department of Health issued guidance on the safe use of face coverings, recommending that a cloth face covering be worn in situations where it may be difficult to practice social distancing, such as in shops and on public transport. Although the Government is recommending the wearing of face coverings, it has not yet made this a mandatory measure and has urged people not to judge or criticise others who do not wear a face covering and to bear in mind that they may have personal reasons for choosing not to.

Key points

The guidance provides clear and useful advice regarding the use of cloth face coverings including:

  • the purpose of face coverings;
  • how to make, wear and wash them;
  • how they can be safely removed; and
  • when to discard of them. 

The guidance also provides a list of dos and don'ts on how to properly wear and handle face coverings. For example, it is recommended that you do: 

  • clean your hands properly before putting on the covering;
  • carry unused coverings in a sealable, clean waterproof bag;
  • carry a second similar bag to put used coverings in. 

It is also recommended that you do not: 

  • touch a face covering while wearing it;
  • lower it to speak or eat; if you need to uncover your nose or mouth it is recommended that you remove the face covering and put it in the bag for used coverings.
  • The guidance also highlights that medical face masks are for healthcare workers and are not intended for use by the general public. It is also recommended that the public do not wear disposable gloves as these can provide a false sense of security and should not replace effective hand hygiene.

Face coverings in the workplace 

The guidance does not specifically refer to the wearing of face coverings in workplaces but recommends that they be worn on public transport, in shops and in enclosed spaces with other people. Whilst a workplace may be considered an enclosed space, the wearing of face coverings has not yet been made a mandatory requirement and it is important for employers to look at this guidance in conjunction with the National Return to Work Safely Protocol (the Protocol) which was published on 9 May 2020. Unlike the guidance on the safe use of face coverings, the Protocol is mandatory and applies to all workplaces across Ireland. It sets out steps which must be followed by employers and employees in order to return to work safely and reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.  See here for our briefing on the Protocol.

The Protocol notes that where physical distancing of 2 metres is not possible within a workplace, the employer should put in place alternative protective measures such as clear plastic guards between workers, accessible hand washing facilities, and make face masks available to workers in line with Public Health advice. Therefore, while the Protocol does not mandate the wearing of face coverings, it does take a similar view to the guidance and focuses on situations where social distancing cannot be ensured, recommending that in those circumstances face coverings should be provided by the employer. However, the wearing of face coverings does not act as a substitute for other protective measures.

Employers should bear in mind that the Protocol is a living document and is subject to change in line with updated Public Health advice and these should be kept under review to ensure that employers continue to comply with the most up-to-date advice and guidance.

The legal position in other jurisdictions 

The Irish position on the use of face coverings corresponds to a large extent with that of the UK. The COVID-19 Recovery Plan published by the UK government recommends that face coverings be worn in public places where social distancing is not possible and where individuals are likely to come into contact with others. As with our Protocol, the UK's Safe Working Guidance does not mandate the wearing of face coverings within workplaces, however, it does state that employers should support workers in the safe use of face coverings if they wish to wear them.

A similar position has been taken in the USA, where the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending that cloth face coverings be worn in public places where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. While the CDC guidance is not mandatory, a number of state and local governments have issued orders requiring the public to wear face coverings in public places including the workplace.

Useful Links and Other Resources

The guidance also includes useful links to advice from the Department of Health on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, as well as video tutorials demonstrating how to make and safely wear a cloth face covering. Access the guidance here.  

The National Return to Work Safely Protocol can be accessed here.

We will continue to keep you up to date on developments through our dedicated COVID-19 Hub

If you have any specific queries in relation to COVID-19, please get in touch with your regular William Fry contact. 

 
 

Contributed by Órlaith Ní Mhadagáin

Key Contacts

Ailbhe Dennehy Partner

Jeffrey Greene Partner

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