If your business employs workers in customer-facing roles, they may be at a greater risk of contracting coronavirus (COVID-19). Therefore, it is important to consider what your responsibilities are here as an employer. You need to understand whether you are legally responsible for your employee’s health if their work puts them at greater risk of contracting the virus. This article will explain your obligations as an employer and the steps you should take to minimise the risks of your employees contracting coronavirus.

What Are Your Obligations as an Employer?

Australian workplace health and safety laws require employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers. This includes providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risk to health and safety. 

In terms of coronavirus, you must identify any risks of an employee contracting coronavirus through their work, and do what is reasonably practicable to either eliminate or minimise those risks. 

For example, those steps may be that customers or clients are required to wash their hands before entering the workplace.

Am I Liable if a Worker Contracts Coronavirus?

A worker may have grounds for a workers’ compensation claim if they can show their employment was the main contributing factor to contracting coronavirus. 

For example, workers’ compensation claims are commonly seen in industries such as education and aged care, where workers contract diseases from coming in contact with patients.

However, this potential liability would be balanced against the steps you have taken to minimise risks of infection.

It is important to note that your liability to ensure workers are safe from physical harm also covers casual employees and independent contractors. 

How to Reduce Risks for Your Workers

There are some essential steps that every employer should take to minimise risks of their workers contracting coronavirus.

1. Communicate and Educate 

The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly evolving and you must provide employees with the information they need to avoid contracting and spreading the virus. Provide employees with current information from official sources. You should also provide clear guidance and direction about what is expected of them. This includes:

  • what action to take if they become unwell;
  • what symptoms to be aware of; and 
  • when they may need to stay away from the workplace. 

2. Consult

You should consult with your employees about any health and safety risks they may face in the course of their work. This includes providing options to reduce those risks. You should consider their views about the issues and steps you are taking to minimise those risks.  

3. Conduct a Risk Review

You should conduct a careful assessment of the risks involved in the work your employees complete. Identify any risks and what steps you can take to either eliminate or minimise those risks. 

For example, you could introduce procedures that eliminate your workers’ need for physical contact with members of the public. This includes no-touch food delivery procedures, where deliverables are left at a designated place.

4.  Protect 

Take all steps to protect your employees from contracting coronavirus. These should include: 

  1. providing appropriate personal protective equipment and information on how to use them properly; 
  2. providing advice to ensure they practice good hygiene;
  3. reminding workers they have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and to not adversely affect the health and safety of others; and
  4. providing workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns and access to support services, including employee assistance programs. 

What Do I Do if My Employee Refuses to Work?

If your worker asks to work from home because of concerns about coronavirus, you should come to an arrangement with them that suits your business and addresses their concerns. You will need to assess the legitimacy of health risks they may raise and consider the needs of your workplace. 

For example, there may not be a practical alternative for a worker in a customer-facing role. 

Here, the normal leave application process should apply, so options may include offering them paid or unpaid leave. If you do not reach an agreement and they do not have paid leave available, the worker is not entitled to receive pay if they are fit for work but they refuse to work. You should encourage the employee to discuss their level of risk of contracting coronavirus with: 

  • their doctor;
  • a workplace health and safety representative; or 
  • the appropriate government workplace health and safety body.

If the worker still refuses to work, you should seek legal advice to confirm your rights and the next steps.

Key Takeaways

The coronavirus pandemic means employers are needing to weigh up the health and safety implications of employees attending work. This is particularly important if they work in front-line, public-facing roles. You should be aiming to minimise the risks of your workers contracting coronavirus during their work by taking steps, including providing: 

  • up to date information;
  • training on minimising risks; and
  • any equipment that will assist in minimising the risk of contracting coronavirus.

If you have any concerns about your obligations as an employer or other issues with your business due to COVID-19, contact LegalVision’s business lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.  

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Jodie Thomson
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