Employee and locum pharmacists are reminded to ensure pharmacy employers notify the Health & Safety Executive (HSE or the NI HSE in Northern Ireland) if a pharmacist or one of the pharmacy team contracts COVID-19 and was likely to have contracted the infection at work.
Employers have clear legal responsibilities for maintaining the health and safety of employees and others in the workplace and that includes reporting incidents to the relevant authority as required under RIDDOR – Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013.
The PDA is concerned that some employers appear unwilling to comply with their legal duty to report such infections and we are advising all members who believe they are likely to have contracted COVID-19 in the workplace to notify their employer in writing of this, and request a copy of the HSE report.
Members attention is drawn particularly to the obligation to report cases of COVID-19 as Exposure to a Biological Agent. The HSE guidance states:
“If there is reasonable evidence that someone diagnosed with COVID-19 was likely exposed because of their work you must report this as an exposure to a biological agent using the case of disease report. An example of a work-related exposure to coronavirus would be a health care professional who is diagnosed with COVID-19 after treating patients with COVID-19.”
Members are therefore advised that there is a clear duty for employers to report even mild COVID-19 infections using the procedure and forms available on the HSE website, when anyone working in a pharmacy, including the pharmacist, is likely to have contracted the infection through workplace exposure.
Any death that occurs as a result of COVID-19 contracted at work must be reported as a workplace fatality. The precise wording of the guidance says: “You must report workplace fatalities to HSE by the quickest practicable means without delay and send a report of that fatality within 10 days of the incident.”
Reasonable evidence of a work acquired coronavirus infection could include:
A pharmacist or pharmacy team member subsequently contracts COVID-19 after working in proximity to a colleague who has a coronavirus infection, particularly if social distancing cannot be observed in the pharmacy and PPE is not being used appropriately, or at all.
A pharmacist or pharmacy team member contracts COVID-19 after encountering a member of the public at work who has a coronavirus infection, whether this was known at the time of the encounter or not.
A pharmacist or pharmacy team member contracts COVID-19 from a colleague or patient after working in a hospital pharmacy department where social distancing is not possible and PPE is prioritised for other clinical areas due to supply shortages.
In the above examples, the likelihood of workplace exposure being responsible for a pharmacy worker contracting COVID-19 would increase if the pharmacist had observed social distancing guidance outside of work and other members of the household only exhibited COVID -19 symptoms after the pharmacist developed theirs.
There may be resistance from some employers to report a COVID -19 infection on the grounds that they believe it is difficult to establish that such an infection occurred in the workplace. However, only “reasonable evidence” of catching it at work is required to reach the reporting threshold, rather than conclusive proof.
There is considerable under reporting of workplace incidents to the HSE and for a true picture of work acquired infections, appropriate reporting to the HSE is necessary. Such information allows lessons to be learned and enables more effective preparations for any subsequent pandemic.
The government recently announced that pharmacists would now be eligible for the state backed COVID-19 related death in service compensation payments. This welcome benefit was hard fought for, especially in the community pharmacy sector and it should be made as secure as possible. The PDA advises pharmacists that reporting work acquired COVID-19 infections to the HSE would be an important component in any subsequent claim put to the government scheme on behalf of the deceased.
Regardless of the severity of the illness, a work acquired COVID-19 infection must be reported to the HSE. Even if contracting COVID-19 does not cause death, there may be the possibility of a claim for compensation being made against the employer in the event that it could be shown that appropriate risk management measures were not put in place by the employer.
Since the beginning of this crisis the PDA has been supporting members and raising issues with employers, such as inadequate social distancing measures in the pharmacy and a failure to provide PPE at work or even prohibiting its use. Such failures need to be reported and employers need to know that every future decision they make will be scrutinised with the appropriate consequences for failing to adequately protect their workers.
Any PDA member who has contracted COVID-19 after likely being exposed to it at work should promptly notify their employer and contact the PDA without delay for support and advice.