The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is unprecedented, not only for employers and employees but for Government and health sectors worldwide. Many employers are now asking how to protect their employees from the threats and impacts of COVID-19.
To help, this article outlines:
- your obligations as an employer; and
- how you can manage the risks in your workplace associated with the ongoing coronavirus threat.
Every employer has a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of each person in their workplace, including both employees and visitors. This responsibility is known as a duty of care.
You must ensure that your business:
- continues to keep employees and visitors safe whilst they are at your workplace;
- takes reasonable steps to ensure compliance with obligations to keep your employees safe.
Understanding the Risks Associated with COVID-19
Start by identifying any hazards and risks associated with your employees performing their roles in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will differ in each business, depending on:
- the type of work your employees carry out;
- their interaction with the general public or at-risk members of society;
- their ability to practice ‘social distancing’; and
- their ability to maintain good hygiene practices.
The State and Federal Governments and their respective health offices are regularly updating measures they have put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus. For example, there may be government-mandated restrictions that apply to your business about:
- preparing a COVID-19 safety plan to outline how you will minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace
- requirements to wear a face mask in the workplace;
- density limits (e.g. one person per four square metres);
- mandatory vaccinations for certain workers;
- ensuring that people can check-in or provide their contact details when they enter your premises; and
- ensuring that only vaccinated staff, customers and visitors attend your premises.
These developments will impact measures you have already implemented or need to implement. To this end, you should:
- ensure that you keep up to date with the latest updates on health and safety guidance;
- seek to continuously improve your health and safety practices;
- ensure all senior management are practising the same health and safety measures implemented across the business;
investigate hazards; and
- ensure you have systems in place to rapidly inform all of your employees of urgent updates to work health and safety changes.
Importantly, make sure you consult with your staff on:
- safety measures or processes that you already have in place; and
- new safety measures or procedures that you are implementing under your obligations.
Duty of Care
Each state and territory has its own work health and safety legislation setting out an employer’s duty of care. In NSW, for example, regardless of the COVID-19 threat, you must:
- provide a workplace that is free of health and safety risks;
- maintain safe plant and structures;
- provide safe work systems;
- ensure the safe use, handling and storage of plant, structures and substances;
- provide adequate facilities for employees to carry out their work;
- provide appropriate information, training or supervision as required to protect all employees from risks to their health and safety; and
- monitor the health of employees and the conditions of the workplace to prevent illness or injury.
The current situation could feel overwhelming. However, to discharge your duties as an employer, we recommend that you take all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of your employees.
Public health laws and Safe Work Australia provide guidance for (and in some cases requires) you to manage the risks associated with COVID-19. Within your business you must:
- prepare a COVID-19 safety plan;
- encourage workers to keep a distance of 1.5 metres from others;
- require workers not to attend your workplace when unwell and encourage them to get a COVID-19 test when they have symptoms;
- encourage or require workers to be vaccinated;
- promote good hygiene practices such as regular hand washing and use of hand sanitiser;
- ensure your workplace is regularly cleaned and disinfected;
- ensure there is adequate ventilation in the workplace;
- encourage or require workers to wear a face mask and personal protective equipment in your workplace;
- require workers and visitors to check-in before entering your workplace;
- consult with workers;
- consider the psychological health and safety risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic; and
- consider flexible work arrangements such as working from home.
Other things you can do include:
- implementing a work from home policy (if appropriate);
- providing access to up to date health information from reputable sources (such as state and federal Departments of Health and the World Health Organization);
- taking practical steps to limit the exposure employees have with the general public;
- reducing the number of employees working in teams in close proximity, including introducing rotating rosters or shifts; and
choosing not to take cash or other well-handled items.
Working From Home
Many businesses are requesting that their employees, where possible, work from home. Although some businesses previously offered flexible working options, the pandemic has resulted in hundreds of employees now working from home for weeks at a time.
As an employer, you still have obligations to ensure your employees are safe, even when working in their own homes. This can add burden and stress to an already stressful situation. There are some steps you can take to ensure that you have discharged your duties as an employer and to make your employee’s home offices as safe as possible. You could:
- conduct video workspace assessments – have employees show you around their proposed working space so you can assess the risks;
- request employees complete a self-risk assessment at home;
- provide employees with access to suitable office chairs, or a fund to purchase suitable equipment; and
- regularly check in with employees.
First and foremost, as an employer, ensure that you are keeping up to date with the latest health advice from state and federal health departments. Be proactive about ensuring you meet your employer obligations, whilst also attempting to contain the threat of coronavirus in your workplace.
It is important to note that the situation is constantly evolving, almost daily. Therefore, make sensible decisions about your workplace and your staff. If you are uncertain about what to do, seek advice from a lawyer.