Back to list

Practical tips for minimising coronavirus workplace risks

Tuesday 17, Mar 2020

NSCA Foundation's Safe-T-Bulletin, powered by Safety Solutions

 

Practical tips for minimising coronavirus workplace risks | NSCA Foundation's newsletter the Safe-T-BulletinFrom nationwide travel bans to fistfights over toilet paper, coronavirus (COVID-19) has dominated the Australian news cycle in a way few modern issues can. Lawyers AARON GOONREY and ADAM BATTAGELLO set out some practical tips for establishing and maintaining a safe system of work in the shadow of COVID-19.

Since entering the public consciousness in late December 2019, COVID-19 has accelerated out of Wuhan, with cases now identified in a large number of countries. In this heightened situation, the first consideration of businesses should be to ensure the health and safety of their workers.

What must your business do?

Some comfort can be taken from the disruption given that the general approach to understanding and developing responses to the risks will follow the same path ordinarily recommended for businesses in developing a robust risk management system. That is:

1. As a first step, businesses should undertake a risk assessment to understand what COVID-19 may mean for their workforce. In particular:

  • Ask yourself, what is COVID-19? A hazard cannot properly be addressed unless it is understood. Luckily, there is no shortage of official sources to obtain this information and we have listed helpful sources as a first port of call at the end of this article. The Commonwealth Department of Health describes COVID-19 as a respiratory illness which is likely to spread from person-to-person contact, with associated symptoms ranging from fever, general flu-like symptoms and shortness of breath.
  • Once you understand the hazard posed by COVID-19, ask yourself, what are the key areas of risk for my business? What are the key areas which, if left unaddressed, may allow for the spread of COVID-19? Are there, for example, high levels of international travel or of face-to-face interaction with clients or suppliers from countries designated as high risk?
     

2. Having come to grips with the nature of the risk, businesses should consider what controls are reasonably available to address that risk. As with any health and safety risk, the different nature of each business means that there is no ‘magic bullet’ to eliminate the risk in all circumstances. Some of the common controls which businesses should consider include:

  • establishing responsibility for monitoring official government sources for information as it develops, and disseminating that information throughout the business;
  • instituting bans on international work travel or, if comprehensive bans are not realistic in the context of your business, closely monitoring government sources to understand countries at the greatest risk and tailoring your bans specifically. The current requirements for returning travellers, particularly regarding self-isolation, also need to be considered;
  • eliminating direct contact with clients or individuals from countries at greatest risk, for example through the use of readily available technology for organising digital meetings;
  • instituting mandatory work from home requirements where a worker self-reports or demonstrates symptoms associated with COVID-19. If workers are going to be encouraged or directed to work remotely, it is important to remember that the health and safety obligations of the person conducting a business or undertaking/employer extend to ensuring that the risks associated with that location are mitigated. For example: Has an assessment (by the business or by the worker themselves) been undertaken at the remote place of work sufficient to satisfy the business that risks are mitigated? Has the worker been provided with resources at their remote workplace which can reasonably be made available and are otherwise available to those who remain at the ordinary place of work (eg, hand sanitiser)?

What must your business do?

Some comfort can be taken from the disruption given that the general approach to understanding and developing responses to the risks will follow the same path ordinarily recommended for businesses in developing a robust risk management system. That is:

1. As a first step, businesses should undertake a risk assessment to understand what COVID-19 may mean for their workforce. In particular:

  • Ask yourself, what is COVID-19? A hazard cannot properly be addressed unless it is understood. Luckily, there is no shortage of official sources to obtain this information and we have listed helpful sources as a first port of call at the end of this article. The Commonwealth Department of Health describes COVID-19 as a respiratory illness which is likely to spread from person-to-person contact, with associated symptoms ranging from fever, general flu-like symptoms and shortness of breath.
  • Once you understand the hazard posed by COVID-19, ask yourself, what are the key areas of risk for my business? What are the key areas which, if left unaddressed, may allow for the spread of COVID-19? Are there, for example, high levels of international travel or of face-to-face interaction with clients or suppliers from countries designated as high risk?
     

2. Having come to grips with the nature of the risk, businesses should consider what controls are reasonably available to address that risk. As with any health and safety risk, the different nature of each business means that there is no ‘magic bullet’ to eliminate the risk in all circumstances. Some of the common controls which businesses should consider include:

  • establishing responsibility for monitoring official government sources for information as it develops, and disseminating that information throughout the business;
  • instituting bans on international work travel or, if comprehensive bans are not realistic in the context of your business, closely monitoring government sources to understand countries at the greatest risk and tailoring your bans specifically. The current requirements for returning travellers, particularly regarding self-isolation, also need to be considered;
  • eliminating direct contact with clients or individuals from countries at greatest risk, for example through the use of readily available technology for organising digital meetings;
  • instituting mandatory work from home requirements where a worker self-reports or demonstrates symptoms associated with COVID-19. If workers are going to be encouraged or directed to work remotely, it is important to remember that the health and safety obligations of the person conducting a business or undertaking/employer extend to ensuring that the risks associated with that location are mitigated. For example: Has an assessment (by the business or by the worker themselves) been undertaken at the remote place of work sufficient to satisfy the business that risks are mitigated? Has the worker been provided with resources at their remote workplace which can reasonably be made available and are otherwise available to those who remain at the ordinary place of work (eg, hand sanitiser)?

What must workers do?

In addition, workers also have a duty to take care not just of their own safety, but to ensure their actions do not affect the safety of others. Businesses can and should assist workers in discharging this duty by establishing a regime of reasonable directions which may include:

  • asking that workers thoroughly wash their hands regularly, and making hand sanitiser readily available throughout the workplace;
  • requesting that workers limit unnecessary person-to-person contact (eg, handshaking) to the greatest extent possible;
  • directing workers to immediately: see a healthcare professional if they feel unwell, and inform the business if they are unwell, including if they suspect or have been confirmed as having contracted COVID-19.

Where to from here?

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, owing to its concern over the “alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction”. There is little that most businesses can do to directly control the broader spread of COVID-19, but it is certainly within their power and their obligation to be proactive in responding to the risk within their own workplace. While the immediate future of COVID-19 is, much like its rise, unpredictable, by taking the above steps to identify and control risks associated with the virus, businesses will best position themselves to respond in the rapidly changing global environment.

Further information

For further information on COVID-19, the following links are a good starting point:

Aaron Goonrey

Adam Battagello

Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Adam Battagello is a Senior Associate in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. Aaron can be contacted at agoonrey@landers.com.au and Adam can be contacted at abattagello@landers.com.au.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/wladimir1804