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Businesses to face strict enforcement measures for non-compliance with ‘Return to Work Protocol’

Businesses throughout Laois and the country could face strict enforcement measures for non-compliance with the “Return to Work Protocol”.

This is the alert issued by the Association of Compliance Officers Ireland (ACOI), on the back of a recent response from Heather Humphreys, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation to a question put to her in the Dáil.

When asked about her plans for ensuring workplace compliance with the strict rules around people returning to work and the economy opening up again, Minister Heather Humphries confirmed that the HSA has all of the powers that it needs through a range of measures including advice, guidance, inspection and enforcement action.

Commenting on the Minister’s response, Michael Kavanagh, CEO of the ACOI, said: “While they are definitely there to help and assist, there can be no mistaking that the HSA’s powers of enforcement are considerable – they can serve improvement and prohibition notices, and ultimately, they have the power to order business closures, if they deem it necessary.

“The vast majority of businesses want to be compliant, though many are having to contend with the financial and logistical implications of doing so.

“But for the few who do not adhere to the rules, it is clear that the Minister is fully supportive of the HSA using their powers to police these measures.

“The Minister did stress however, that helping businesses to comply is the overall aim of the HSA, so I think a collaborative approach will be taken by all to ensure the country can get back up and running safely”.

In response to this Dáil question asked on May 20th, the Minister went on to say: “The HSA has full powers to oversee compliance with the health, safety and wellbeing of workers in their place of work.

“While COVID-19 is a public health issue, the infectious nature of the virus and the way in which it is easily transmitted through human contact, makes it a workplace health and safety issue as well as a general health matter. Neither health, safety nor welfare are narrowly defined in the 2005 Act.”

The ACOI have welcomed the publication of the Return to Work Protocol by the Minister last month, saying that they are very much on the “same page”.

Mr. Kavanagh continued: “Before the Return to Work Protocol were announced we were advocating for businesses to appoint a dedicated COVID Compliance Officer, to act as a go-to person, which the HSE and Gardaí can interact with and support, in terms of putting the necessary processes and procedures in place, so we are very happy to see that the Minister has included this in her guidance”.

The ACOI say that gone are the days where compliance, as a function in an organisation, is seen as just as “tick box” exercise.

Mr. Kavanagh said feedback from their members has highlighted the swift action compliance experts throughout the country have had to take, to ensure that new business models and organisational structures protect people and comply with both existing and new rules and regulations.

He said: “Compliance is a skillset in itself – compliance officers in organisations are already used to dealing with regulations, and bedding those regulations in an organisation… so while the output in relation to the COVID-19 rules is different, the input in terms of skills necessary to achieve compliance is very much the same.

“Compliance officers already have a framework for operating in this environment so businesses that have an existing compliance officer, or have assigned COVID-19 responsibility to an expert, are already on their way to being ready to reopen in the ‘new normal’ environment.”

The ACOI say that the COVID compliance function in organisations will look differently depending on the size and nature of the organisation.

Mr. Kavanagh explained: “GDPR is something businesses have had to deal with over the last few years, and we see now that depending on the size of the company some might have a dedicated GDPR officer, but smaller cos might outsource this function.

“This could be the way it plays out when it comes to COVID also”.

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Stradbally native Alan Hartnett is a graduate of Knockbeg College who has worked in the local and national media since 2008. Alan has a BA in Economics, Politics and Law and an MA in Journalism from DCU. His happiest moment was when Jody Dillon scored THAT goal in the Laois senior football final in 2016.