Business guide to Coronavirus

Nine issues faced when maintaining a COVID safe workplace

With some businesses gearing up to reopen or moving employees back to offices, COVID safe planning and risk assessments are required to ensure a safe working environment for employees and customers.

Businesses are increasing the quality of workplace cleaning to address the coronavirus risks but have identified nine common issues when it comes to maintaining a COVID safe workplace. 

Advice from the experts

Australian office cleaning service, Cleancorp has had a surge of new enquiries for anti-viral cleaning services since the start of the pandemic. Lisa Macqueen – Director of Cleancorp reveals the most common organisational concerns that are driving the requests for its services. 

“June and July will be crucial months for many organisations, as a significant proportion of employees will begin to enter workplaces again. Organisations want to be doing everything they can to minimise the risk of infection in their premises to maximise employee safety,” said Lisa.

“A major component of organisational risk management is frequent and thorough anti-viral cleaning. Employers need to understand that old cleaning practices, such as merely wiping down surfaces and vacuuming floors, will be inadequate for keeping surfaces and touchpoints virus free. 

“Disinfection and sanitisation are now more important, with a particular focus on frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, light switches, lift buttons, railings, desks, toilets and microwaves.

“If organisations do not demonstrate they are providing a thoroughly clean and highly sanitised environment, they will struggle to win the confidence of their employees as they head back into their premises – and even the willingness of their employees to enter the workplace.”

COVID safe concerns

1. Open plan offices 

A recent study has shown workers in open plan workplaces have a 62% higher incidence of sick leave than those in private or shared cellular offices. Some organisations are concerned their office layout of shared desks, hot desks, meeting rooms, kitchens, dining areas and breakout spaces may no longer be safe to use and occupy.

Small closed-in pods with soft furnishings – surfaces that need to be steam-cleaned, often at considerable expense – will no longer be viable. 

“I believe COVID-19 could reverse the hot-desking trend and see organisations revert back to enclosed, single-person workstations to reduce risks of transmission,” said Lisa.

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2. Cross-contamination between departments

Business decision-makers are also concerned about potential COVID-19 breakouts spreading across their organisations. 

To minimise such a risk, Cleancorp recommends using colour-coded cleaning materials to ensure the same materials are not used between two different sites.

3. Risk of litigation

The Workplace Health & Safety Act requires employers to provide and maintain a work environment that is without risk to the health and safety of their workers. This includes protection from the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as far as ‘reasonably practical’.

Lisa has found many employers are concerned about the risk of litigation should an employee become infected with COVID-19 while at work and what the WHS implications are. 

For the same reasons, Lisa has found business owners are also worried about customers or visitors becoming infected while on their premises. She says employers have a duty to maintain the workplace and their facilities, and one of the best ways to do this is by organising for it to be cleaned regularly and thoroughly.

4. Compliance with international workplace standards

Beyond the WHS Act, many organisations have committed to additional safety standards, such as ISO 45001 – an international standard for occupational health and safety. 

"Some organisations have ramped up their cleaning because they need to be able to demonstrate to their auditors that they did everything they could to provide a safe environment for employees during this time," said Lisa. 

"These businesses should seek cleaners whose services are ISO certified."

5. Negative publicity in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19

Digital and social media platforms have led to divisive and disruptive blame games about the origin of coronavirus cluster outbreaks. What is clear, however, is the social and financial impact on an organisation that is linked to a cluster, such as the Ruby Princess, Cedar Meats, or smaller businesses. 

Lisa said: "There is a real fear that they will be forever ‘marked’ by a positive COVID-19 case in their workplace and will struggle to win back customers."

6. Lack of control over risks employees take in their own time

Organisations can regularly educate and update employees on new information relating to COVID-19, but how can they minimise the risk of infection on a Monday morning, if some employees were exposed on the weekend? 

Lisa recommends businesses organise a precautionary after-work clean on Mondays, including sanitisation of high-traffic areas. Though time-consuming, Lisa says these extra measures enable organisations to take an active role in preventing the spread of the virus.

7. The risk to vulnerable clients and visitors

Lisa says she has seen an increase in car fleets requesting a full disinfection precautionary clean because they are often working for charities or servicing vulnerable people in the community. 

Similarly, NDIS providers have asked for more frequent and substantial cleans due to concerns about their vulnerable communities. 

At the same time, there are instances of government departments requesting anti-viral cleans to demonstrate best practices to their stakeholders.

8. Parents’ lack of confidence in the safety of school grounds

Except for Victoria and Tasmania, public schools in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory have begun a return to face-to-face learning. 

For independent schools, the Federal Government has stated it would withhold funding if they do not re-open their doors to students in term two, which has motivated many to begin already staging return dates. 

These schools, particularly boarding schools (most of which have shifted to remote learning) are conducting the highest level of cleaning, mostly to reassure parents. 

Lisa said: “Some schools are going ‘above and beyond’ to earn the trust of parents by demonstrating their premises are as low risk as possible.”

9. Demonstrating corporate social responsibility

Many large organisations simply want to show they are not only doing their due diligence but are proactively preventing risk by asking for heavy-duty anti-viral cleans – even if their workplaces are unlikely to have been exposed to COVID-19. 

Lisa said: "The pandemic is a new ‘stress test’ for organisations actively involved in corporate social responsibility."

Siobhann Provost

Senior Writer, Business Australia

Siobhann has over 18 years human resources business partnering experience in large organisations. She more recently established and led a people advice team of senior workplace advisors before moving into content writing.

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