Australia is closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus (COVID-19), first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness from the common cold to more severe illnesses, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A small number of cases of this strain of coronavirus have been confirmed in Australia to date. Australian work health and safety (WHS) laws require persons conducting a business or undertaking to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace, by providing and maintaining a work environment that does not pose risks to health and safety. Latest updates about coronavirus are provided by the Australian Department of Health website.
Businesses must identify hazards in the workplace and their associated risks, and do what is reasonably practicable to reduce or eliminate those risks. Coronavirus is a hazard; employers can identify the risks it poses to workers by monitoring expert advice from the Chief Medical Officer or their local state or territory health department, and by talking to workers. Employers must determine the likelihood of the risk occurring, the degree of harm that might result and the availability/suitability of any control measures that could be implemented. Businesses that involve direct contact with sick or ill patients/customers should monitor the coronavirus situation as it develops and review their infection control policies, procedures and practices, to ensure that they are effective and being followed. Workers planning to travel overseas, particularly to China, should also monitor the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel advice on the Smartraveller website. Workers are also responsible for their own health and safety, and must ensure that it does not adversely affect the health and safety of others, by practising hygiene.
Hygienic practices include washing their hands often, with soap and water, or carrying hand sanitiser and using it as needed. When sneezing or coughing, workers should cover their mouths, and seek advice from a healthcare professional if they start feeling unwell. Workers concerned they are at risk of contracting coronavirus should consult their manager immediately, to allow the business to consider whether additional control measures (such as requesting the employee seek medical clearance or work from home during the risk period) are necessary. Workers are entitled to personal leave if they are unfit for work due to contracting coronavirus.
A limited number of cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in NSW, with SafeWork NSW advising businesses and their employees to manage the risks associated with the disease. It is important to note that individuals who have not visited Wuhan, or come into contact with someone from Wuhan, are unlikely to be at risk of contracting coronavirus. Individuals who have visited Wuhan or come into contact with someone who has should monitor their health and seek advice from NSW Health via the health direct helpline, on 1800 022 222. Under WHS Regulations, workers are obligated to protect themselves and others. This can be carried out by monitoring personal health, consulting with medical professionals if experiencing symptoms and informing employers of any infection risk to others. Workers who believe they are at risk of infection of coronavirus should raise any concerns with their managers or WHS representative as soon as possible. If they receive an unsatisfactory response, NSW workers should contact SafeWork NSW on 13 10 50 or raise their concerns via the Speak Up platform.
To date, most people infected are residents of China or people who have recently travelled to China. A limited number of cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Victoria. The virus can cause mild to severe respiratory illness, with symptoms ranging from mild illness to pneumonia. Affected people could experience fever, flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and headaches, and difficulty breathing. While it is not yet understood how the coronavirus is transmitted, viruses generally spread through direct person-to-person contact, touching infected surfaces or from handling infected materials. Viruses can survive for some hours on common surfaces and can be transmitted by hand to infect the nose, eyes and mouth. Airborne droplets transmitted over a distance of approximately one metre, through coughs and sneezes, and aerosol transmission through indoor air containing concentrations of the virus suspended in moisture or dust particles could also cause infections.
WorkSafe Victoria advises that employers should assess the risk of exposure by talking to employees who have direct contact with people who have recently travelled to China, direct contact with sick or ill patients or customers who have symptoms of the virus, and employees who have travelled or are planning to travel overseas for work, particularly to China. Employers in Victoria should also monitor expert advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health and Human Sciences as the situation develops. Employers should also consider whether work activities put other people at risk, and control risks by developing an infection control policy that includes advice for employees showing signs and symptoms to remain at home and seek medical advice. Employers should also provide adequate facilities or products (such as hand sanitiser) to enable employees to maintain good hygiene practices. WorkSafe Victoria advises employees who believe they are at risk of infection to raise this issue with their manager immediately, and seek medical clearance or work from home during the risk period. Employees unfit for work due to coronavirus should follow medical advice and remain isolated for 14 days.
All workers should be regularly washing their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub. Workers should also wash hands before eating or visiting the toilet, and avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms. Workers should also practise good hygiene by disposing of used tissues immediately, and seeing a healthcare professional if they are unwell. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers must provide and maintain a safe working environment without risks to the health of employees or independent contractors. Employers must also provide information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors, to enable them to work in a safe way. Employers must monitor the health of employees and the conditions at any workplace under their management and control. Employers should provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including in languages other than English, if necessary. Employees must also take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and for persons who may be affected by the employee’s acts or omissions at a workplace. Employees must cooperate with employers with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act.
The Australian Department of Health has released fact sheets, detailing the actions individuals should take to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The novel coronavirus information sheet for employers provides information about the virus and the steps to take if employees contract the virus. The Department of Health has also released industry-specific fact sheets for emergency departments, primary and community health workers, and aged-care and residential-care workers. Information sheets have also been released for individuals working in the airline industry, for flight crew, border staff, workers in the cruise industry, and for hotels and hotel staff.
State-specific resources are also available from the relevant government health departments, such as ACT Health, Queensland Health, Northern Territory Department of Health, NSW Health, SA Health, Tasmanian Department of Health, Victoria Health and WA Health. Statements have also been released by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and by Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein, among others.
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