COVID-19 and Safety in Your Workplace

What Should you Be Doing?

We all know that the possibility of COVID-19 infection is a real one.

We also know that it is a workplace risk that needs to be managed by employers and Persons Conducting Businesses or Undertakings (PCBUs).

The risk controls we need to develop and implement may be COVID-specific, but the way we go about identifying, assessing and eliminating or minimising them is the same way in which the safety laws require us to tackle any other workplace risks.

So, you should be (at least) doing the following on a regular basis:

1. Comply with Government directives and advice

As a first and minimum step, your business should comply with national and state public health directions relating to COVID-19.

They are available on the Departments’ websites and you should check them frequently to make sure you are working with the most current information.

Current measures you should be taking include:

  • Reducing direct contact between workers and other persons, including:
    • Social distancing of at least 1.5 metres (and 1 person per 4sqm indoors),
    • Barriers or spacing between workstations, seated areas, etc.,
    • Modifying shifts and rosters to reduce peak periods,
    • Supporting flexible work arrangements where possible, including working from home.
  • Reducing environmental exposure, including:
    • Frequently cleaning and disinfecting of high traffic areas and shared surfaces,
    • Providing appropriate cleaning products and instructions for cleaning workspaces,
    • Providing amenities for personal hygiene and infection control,
    • Inspecting and reviewing air conditioning and ventilation systems.

2. Keep consulting

Your business must assess the risks of COVID-19 in consultation with workers, particularly when devising and implementing control measures to minimise the spread of the virus.

You should also be consulting with the people with whom you share a duty to keep your workers and workplaces safe, such as building managers, co-commercial tenants and (potentially) landlords.

We’re all in this together.

3. Don’t forget regulator notifications

Remember that PCBUs and employers may have notification requirements to safety regulators where any confirmed or uncontrolled exposure to serious illness, including COVID-19, occurs or where workers are admitted as in-patients in hospital as a result of exposure in the workplace.

4. Make sure what you’re doing is working

We all need to be regularly assessing the effectiveness of what we are doing to contain COVID-related infection risks in the workplace.

Keep up to date with Government advice.

Keep talking to your colleagues and fellow duty-holders.

Our best resources are our public health authorities. Listen to them and do what they tell you to do. The safety regulators are following their guidance and expect businesses and workers to do the same.

Not everyone is coming into the workplace now

That’s just where we are now.

You should be providing clear direction and guidance to workers about what is expected of them in terms of:

  • Knowing when to stay away from the workplace,
  • What they need to do if they become unwell,
  • What symptoms they need to know about,
  • Maintaining a safe working environment at home (we’ve put together a checklist of things to think about and you can access it here).

If people are coming into work you need to make sure that they have access to a hygienic workplace and that they maintain social distancing when they are at work.

Hygienic practices to be reinforced include:

  • Frequent and thorough hand washing,
  • Actively encouraging social distancing (including limiting access to other people in the workplace),
  • Covering mouths while coughing or sneezing,
  • Staying away from the workplace if they are unwell and encouraging them to seek medical advice.

Please remember that some members of your workforce will have different infection risk profiles and you need to pay special attention to keeping them safe.

Workers over 60 and indigenous workers over 50 can be more susceptible to infection and/or less able to fight off the virus if they catch it.

The same goes for people with compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses.

Workers from non-English speaking backgrounds may need access to translated material. Use available pictorial resources to get the message across.

You need to properly assess the risk of infection for your specific workers and that the measures you take to keep them safe are targeted to their specific circumstances.

Also remind workers that they have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety.

The safety laws provide that workers have a right to cease, or refuse to carry out work, if they have a reasonable concern that carrying out work would expose them to an immediate or imminent risk of COVID-19. That worker must, however, remain available to carry out suitable alternative work, e.g., work from home. Where such work is not available, PCBU’s and employers may exercise their rights to ask workers to take leave or stand down workers where appropriate.

On our website you can access our COVID-19 Critical Information for Employers for each State and Territory together with our infographic factsheets.

Are your workers at home OK?

Most of us are working from home and we all know that presents unique challenges that we have to overcome.

Keeping track of workers’ mental health is one such challenge and it needs to be one of your priorities.

Most people are worried about their children, their jobs, their mortgages and rents, whether they are feeling hot or tired because they’re sick and even just how they are going to fill in today and tomorrow.

Keep talking to your workers. Let them know they are being heard and that they are front of mind.

Talk to them about how work will be conducted differently to reduce infection risk and facilitate flexibility and consider work modifications to help workers manage their workload and family and carer responsibilities.

Give them information about their entitlements that they can access where they are caring for family members or become unwell with COVID-19.

Be open and transparent about how COVID-19 risks may impact upon their working arrangements.

Remind your workers that they are valued and that what happens to them and their families matters to all of us.

Encourage discussions to let workers to share and learn from others.

Make EAP and support services available and let your colleagues know how to access them.

Encourages workers to stay connected through regular communication, e.g., by phone or videoconferencing. Consider practical measures such as daily catch-ups.

Be aware of behaviour and communication changes in workers and recognise signs that may indicate someone is struggling.

Encourage work breaks and physical activity as permitted by law.

There’s lots we can do to help each other, so let’s get out there and do it.

We have prepared an example Checklist for Working at Home which can be adapted to your specific circumstances to makes sure you and your workforce are assessing the risks of working at home.

What happens if a colleague is infected?

There are no specific provisions in the safety legislation that deal with when a PCBU or employer may direct a worker to stay away from their usual place of work.

PCBUs and employers should, however, ensure that a worker confirmed to have COVID-19 does not return to work while they are infectious or as otherwise directed by health authorities.

Make sure that you have consulted with your workers about what you’ll each do if someone at work becomes infected with COVID-19.

This isn’t about workplace politics or IR issues. This is about all of us doing our part to make sure we stay safe.

Prepare and follow your Pandemic Plan

Businesses should also develop a pandemic plan in consultation with workers.  That plan should cover:

  • Prevention and preparedness,
  • Response – initial action,
  • Response – targeted action, and
  • Recovery

Please see our COVID-19 page on our website for further information on pandemic plans.

Please contact us if you have any questions as to how to address COVID-19 risks in your workplace.

John Makris

+61 2 9169 8407
[email protected]
Dominic Fleeton
Special Counsel
+61 3 9958 9619
[email protected]
Michael Stutley
+61 8 6381 7060
[email protected]
Erica Elliott
Special Counsel
+61 2 9169 8404
[email protected]