With Australia’s coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine rollout now underway, Safe Work Australia (SWA) has released work health and safety (WHS) guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations and the workplace. Under the WHS guidance, employers have a duty to eliminate or minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
A safe and effective vaccine is only one part of keeping the community safe and healthy. To meet their duties under the model WHS laws and minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, employers must continue to apply all reasonably practicable control measures, including physical distancing, good hygiene, regular cleaning and maintenance, and ensuring workers do not attend work if they are unwell. Employers must also comply with any public health orders made by state and territory governments that apply to them and their workplace.
The Australian Government is committed to providing all Australians with access to free, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. While the federal government aims to have as many Australians as possible choose to be vaccinated, receiving a vaccination is voluntary. Employers can encourage their workers to get a COVID-19 vaccination, if they are able to. Employers can also help their workers find out more information about the vaccines by directing them to the Department of Health website. The Australian Government’s ‘COVID-19 Vaccines National Rollout Strategy’ has identified priority groups for vaccination, including critical and high-risk workers, with older Australians and certain industries to receive the vaccine first.
State and territory health agencies may make public health orders that require some workers to be vaccinated; for example, those considered to be working in high-risk workplaces. If public health orders are made, employers must follow them, and stay up to date with the advice of their health agency. There are currently no laws or public health orders in Australia that specifically enable employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The COVID-19 vaccines will help protect people by either preventing or reducing symptoms of COVID-19 in the person who has received the vaccine. At present, it is too early to determine if COVID-19 vaccines will stop a vaccinated person from contracting the virus; therefore, a vaccinated person may unknowingly carry and spread the virus to others around them, including workers and others in their workplace. For this reason, employers must continue to apply all reasonably practicable control measures.
While employers may not be able to completely eliminate the risk of workers being exposed to COVID-19 while carrying out work, they must do all that is reasonably practicable to minimise the risk and vaccination is considered as one way to do so, in the context of a range of COVID-19 control measures. A requirement for workers to be vaccinated, however, is unlikely to be reasonably practicable.
To reduce risks such as COVID-19 in the workplace, employers must undertake a risk assessment for their business, consider the available control measures and how they will help manage the risks of COVID-19, and determine what control measures are reasonably practicable to implement in the workplace. Employers must also consult with workers and health and safety representatives about COVID-19 and relevant control measures, including the COVID-19 vaccines.
SafeWork SA Executive Director Martyn Campbell said the new guidance material released by SWA is specific to vaccination and provides information and advice for businesses and workers about their role and responsibilities relating to the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. Campbell stressed that employers have a responsibility under WHS laws to eliminate or minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
“Vaccinations should be considered as one way to apply a control measure in relation to COVID-19. Workplaces must continue with all the other measures in place to stop the spread of the virus including physical distancing, good hygiene and regular cleaning and maintenance,” Campbell said. “I strongly encourage businesses and workers to read the new guides and understand how to best provide a safe working environment for everyone.”
The guidance is available here, via the SWA website.
The situation of COVID-19 in Australia is changing rapidly. For the latest information on Australia’s whole-of-government response to COVID-19, visit www.australia.gov.au.