Tánaiste Signs New Regulations to Protect Workers Exposed to Covid-19 in the Workplace

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27 November 2020 The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar TD has signed into law new regulations and a Code of Practice to protect workers exposed to Covid-19 in the workplace.

The new Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Biological Agents) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 and Code of Practice for the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Biological Agents) Regulations 2013-2020, place a number of additional obligations on employers to ensure workers in Covid-19 risk environments are kept safe.

The Tánaiste Leo Varadkar T.D. said:

“We have all made huge sacrifices to limit the spread of the virus, but none so much as our healthcare workers and those that work in our labs, processing tests and researching the virus. These new regulations are designed to put in place even more protections for workers who are employed in those settings to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. The new Code of Practice will provide clarity to all in dealing with biological agents in the workplace.”

The regulations introduce a number of requirements on employers in relation to Covid-19. Currently, Covid-19 is a reportable disease to the Government through the Department of Health and all cases have to be notified by law. These new regulations make it mandatory to also report a case of occupational exposure in the workplace to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

Occupational exposure can result from deliberate work with the virus such as in a research laboratory setting or can occur incidentally from other specific work activities with the virus e.g. working with a COVID-19 patient, handling infected waste or carrying out diagnostic testing in a laboratory.

An employer is also required to carry out a biological agents risk assessment, where work activities involve working with the virus. Other requirements, such as implementing protective measures, keeping exposure lists and making appropriate health surveillance available, may also be required depending on the outcome of this risk assessment.

The Code of Practice also sets out specific measures for laboratories conducting diagnostic testing or non-propagative research and development in respect of COVID-19 samples. It allows a dispensation for certain work, subject to risk assessment, to be conducted at a lower containment level (containment level 2), where appropriate and safe to do so.

The Health and Safety Authority is currently in the process of completing a regulatory impact assessment on a proposal to introduce a legislative requirement for all employers to report cases of COVID-19 to the Authority.

The Biological Agents Regulations and Code of Practice give legal effect in Ireland to two European Directives – EU Directive 2019/1833 and EU Directive 2020/739. These Directives amend and update the EU Biological Agents Directive 2000/54/EC aimed at protecting workers from exposure to biological agents in the workplace.

The Regulations are available at https://enterprise.gov.ie/en/Legislation/SI-No-539-of-2020.html and the Code of Practice is available at https://www.hsa.ie/eng/Publications_and_Forms/Publications/Codes_of_Practice/biological_agents_code_of_practice_2020.93153.shortcut.html.

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