Business guide to Coronavirus

How to manage your WHS obligations in the wake of Covid-19

Work Health and Safety (WHS) Laws require employers to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health and safety of their workers and others in the workplace. 

Under these laws, employers must have measures in place to eliminate and manage the risks associated with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. 

Here is how you should manage the current situation in your workplace.

Assess who is most at risk

Employers should, in consultation with workers, their Health and Safety representatives and any other businesses that work in the same work space:

  • Identify workers and work activities at the greatest risk of spreading infectious diseases in the event of a pandemic. For example: 
    • employees in clinical roles or working in clinical settings
    • border control
    • face-to-face customer service.
  • Assess the likelihood and consequence of infection to workers and others in the workplace.

  • Identify suitable control measures to eliminate or minimise risks (expert advice may be needed).

  • Encourage ill workers to remain away from work when unwell.

  • Develop an implementation plan.

  • Continue monitoring expert advice as the COVID-19 situation develops.

  • Reviewing the implementation of infection control policies, procedures and practices to ensure they are effective and are being followed.

  • Educating and keeping employees and other persons at the workplace up to date on new information.

  • Consulting with others with whom the business works, particularly contractors and labour hire providers to ensure they are also being active, to the extent necessary, in managing the risk.

  • Monitoring changes in the law and official recommendations. For example:

    • On 19 March 2020, the Public Health and Other Legislation (Public Health Emergency) Amendment Bill (Q) 2020 was introduced giving the Queensland Chief Health Officer extensive powers in relation to COVID-19.

Changes to workplace practices 

General obligations

Employers must:

  • Identify the hazards at the workplace and those associated with the way work is performed.

  • Assess the risks at the workplace.

  • Implement suitable control measures to first eliminate and if elimination is not possible, minimise, risks. For example:  

    • Instruct workers to stay at home if they are sick – even if any of the following symptoms are mild:
      • fever
      • dry cough
      • sore throat
      • fatigue
      • shortness of breath
      • headaches
      • aches and pains
      • fatigue.
    • Any unwell workers are instructed to seek immediate medical assistance. 
    • Maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres between workers and customers, as well as moving workstations apart more than 1.5 metres.
    • Designing work activities to reduce physical proximity and/ or encouraging social distancing through flexible working arrangements. 
    • Reducing non-essential face-to-face meetings and gatherings. 
    • Promoting the use of virtual communication channels, like phone and video conferencing.
    • To reinforce and support good personal hygiene, including good hand and respiratory hygiene.
  • Consult with employees and other businesses that have duties in relation to the work or workplace. For example:
    • Hold a meeting with employees to discuss possible control measures.
    • Talk to neighbouring businesses about what you are doing to manage risk.
  • Provide information, instruction, training or supervision as is necessary to protect all persons from risks to their health. For example:

    • Provide information about any changes to work arrangements (e.g. employees working from home, revised customer service standards).
  • Provide adequate facilities.

  • Monitor the health of employees and other persons at all workplaces.

  • Where employees have been instructed to work at home, ensure there is effective communication with the employee.

Employees must:

  • Take reasonable care for his or her own health.

  • Take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others.

  • Comply, so far as the employee is reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given by the business.

  • Co-operate with any reasonable policy or procedure of the business relating to health at the workplace that has been notified to workers.

Specific examples

Everyone should:

  • Frequently wash hands their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand rub.

  • When coughing and sneezing, cough into your upper sleeve and shoulder or a disposable tissue.

  • Dispose of tissues immediately and use alcohol-based hand sanitiser after disposing.

  • If unwell, avoid contact with others (e.g. shaking hands, touching faces, hugging, and other intimate contact).

  • Maintain vigilance (e.g. don’t take a night off to mix it with the crowds in an unprotected way).

Employers should:

  • Consider establishing a customary non-contact greeting (e.g. bowing) and display posters promoting the non-contact greeting so visitors feel at ease.

  • Consider installing high-efficiency air filters.

  • Consider increasing ventilation rates in the work environment, including negative pressure ventilation.

  • Consider installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.

  • Promote frequent and thorough hand washing by employees, customers and other visitors,

  • Make alcohol-based (i.e. containing at least 60% alcohol) hand sanitising dispensers available in prominent places around the workplace and ensure they are regularly refilled.
    • Important: Hand sanitisers should not be provided as the only hand hygiene option as there are times when soap and water should be used instead (e.g. when hands are visibly dirty or after going to the toilet).
  • Make sure that employees, contractors and customers have access to facilities where they can wash their hands with soap and water.

  • Regularly change soap or use liquid pump soap.

  • Ensure an adequate supply of paper tissues is available throughout the workplace.

  • Provide closed bins for hygienic disposal of used tissues.

  • High touch surfaces (e.g. counters, desks and tables) and objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards) are wiped with disinfectant regularly.

  • Areas where there is public access (including door knobs and handles) will also require frequent additional cleaning and disinfection,
  • Ensure infection control procedures are reviewed in consultation with cleaning staff and they have access to suitable personal protective equipment (PPE). For example:
    • gloves
    • gowns
    • professionally fitted masks
    • eye protection
    • respirators.
  • Adequate supplies of cleaning equipment and necessary PPE are available. 
  • Actively promote good hand hygiene in bathroom and kitchen amenities, and good respiratory hygiene in prominent places where close customer or worker contact occurs.

  • Display a poster prompting employee and others to maintain good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene. 

  • Discourage employees from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible.

  • Restricting the number of personnel entering isolation areas.

  • Establishing alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in a facility at a given time, allowing them to maintain distance from one another while maintaining a full onsite work week.

  • Discontinuing nonessential travel on high density vehicles (e.g. planes). 

  • Discontinuing nonessential travel to locations with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks.

  • Depending on the nature of the work, training employees who need to use PPE how to put it on, use/wear it, and take it off correctly, including in the context of their current and potential duties. 

  • Establish whether the business will accept an early return to work if the symptoms do not show within a period of less than two weeks. 
  • Establish a discipline regime for non-compliant workers. For example:
    • clear verbal warnings
    • re-training
    • written warnings that further non-compliance is unacceptable and could result in disciplinary action
    • show cause proceedings 
    • dismissal

Do you have a response plan if a worker presents with COVID-19?

Employers should develop a response plan for if an employee presents with COVID-19 in consultation with workers and/or their HSRs, considering government health advice.

The plan should cover:

  • Where, how and to what sources of COVID-19 might workers be exposed to, including:
    • the general public, customers and co-workers
    • sick individuals
    • individuals who are a particularly high risk of infection (e.g. international travellers who have visited locations with widespread sustained (ongoing) COVID-19 transmission) 
    • healthcare workers who have had unprotected exposures to people known to have, or suspected of having, COVID-19.
  • Workers’ individual risk factors (e.g. diabetes, heart and lung disease, older age; presence of chronic medical conditions, including immunocompromising conditions; pregnancy).

  • How to manage someone who is at higher risk of being affected by COVID-19.

  • How to manage someone who has been with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

  • How to manage the situation if a worker becomes ill at work. For example:
    • do not medicate without professional medical advice
    • limiting the number of people who have contact with the sick person
    • provide the ill worker with a disposable surgical mask to wear to reduce the risk of disease transmission, advising them to go home and immediately call their doctoeir doctor.
  • How to manage a suspected case of COVID-19 awaiting results. For example:
    • advising them to remain self-isolated at home and strictly follow their doctors advice.
  • How to identify persons who may be at risk, and support them, without inviting stigma and discrimination into your workplace. 

  • Considering government recommendations and requirements.

  • If arrangements should be made for their transport either to a doctor or to their home, preferably not using public transport.

  • Recording those who become ill and leave the workplace and the people they have had close or casual contact with.

  • What to do when a person with suspected infection has left the workplace (e.g. ensure the person’s workstation, work area and any communal areas they have been in are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected).

  • How to manage: 
    • increased rates of absenteeism
    • the need for social distancing, staggered work shifts, downsizing operations, delivering services remotely, and other exposure-reducing measures
    • options for conducting essential operations with a reduced workforce, including cross-training workers across different jobs in order to continue operations or deliver surge services
    • interrupted supply chains or delayed ed deliveries.

This information has been compiled from the following resources: 

 

It is important to note this information does not represent legal advice and you should seek specific legal advice for your circumstances. We recommend Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors to help find solutions and minimise risk on your workplace.

Alan Girle

Director, Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors

With over 25 years’ experience Alan Girle is a specialist workplace and employment lawyer with focus on work health and safety (WHS) and other regulatory law.

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