As government restrictions adapt to slowly reopen the economy, the way we transition from shutdown to “business as usual” is very important. 

Many are keen to reopen their workplaces, while others are reluctant to risk an outbreak. As an employer, it is important to understand your safety obligations and how these are affected by the pandemic.

Has My Legal Obligation As an Employer Changed?

At all times, your obligation as a person operating a business is to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that your workplace is free from risks to health and safety. This baseline legal obligation has not changed. However, the measures you need to put in place may have changed. This is because:

  • the level of risk to health and safety is different due to the pandemic; and 
  • there are additional social distancing laws addressing this risk we now all need to adhere to. 

What is Expected of Me As an Employer During COVID-19?

  • You are legally required to do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise the risks to health and safety.
  • In this context, it means you need to do what is reasonably practicable to minimise risk of exposure and transmission of the coronavirus. This includes adhering to social distancing measures.

Clearly, many things will dictate what measures you put in place in your workplace, such as:

  • the industry you are in (Safework NSW have published some helpful case studies for different industries in NSW);
  • what kind of equipment is used and shared;
  • how people interact while carrying out business in your workplace; and 
  • how your workers get to work will also determine the measures you put in place.

COVID-19 Checklist

The following checklist will help you to consider what safety measures you need to put in place to keep your workplace as safe as possible from COVID-19 for employees and customers.

Questions to ConsiderGuidance
Can your employees work from home?
  • Official guidance in some states says that a person should only leave their house for work if they cannot work from home (e.g. in NSW, see here). Check your state or territory guidelines.
  • If your workers can continue to carry out their work from home, consider having this continue. 
  • You may wish to implement or formalise your Working From Home policy, including that each worker assess their remote working set-up to self-certify that it is without risk to health and safety.
How do your employees get to work?
  • Consider the risk level of different modes of public transport and at different times of day. Transport operators in all states are working to implement their own measures to minimise risk, such as increased cleaning. 
  • You may encourage workers to change their shift patterns, where possible, to travel at a time when they can avoid rush hour and there will be fewer people on public transport.
  • Consider providing masks and additional hand sanitiser to any worker who travels by public transport to your workplace, for use during their journey. 
Have you implemented guidelines and facilities to ensure cleanliness and hygiene in the workplace?Consider the following:

 

  • Increasing the frequency your cleaners clean your workplace;
  • Erecting screens between desks, patrons, tellers, customer service workers, etc;
  • Each work day, require every worker to wipe down their own workstation, and shared equipment or vehicle, before and after each use;
  • If resources are available, consider issuing each worker with their own set of tools/equipment so that items do not need to be handled by multiple users;
  • Communicate guidelines and expectations of optimum and frequent hand hygiene and to refrain from touching the face;
  • Ensure adequate soap for hand washing and place hand sanitiser at the entrance and inside your workplace. Position hand sanitiser alongside any shared screens;  
  • Depending on your industry, Issue your workforce with individual masks or encourage people to bring their own;
  • Pause the use of shared kitchen spaces and even shared coffee and tea stations. Encourage everyone to manage their own meal and drink and bring their own coffee mugs;
  • Besides masks and depending on your industry, consider if any personal protective equipment is needed;
  • Where workers are touching consumer products throughout the day, in addition to hand hygiene, issue them with a new pair of disposable hygienic gloves for each shift if this practice is not already in place.
Have you considered how your workplace needs to change to conform to social distancing requirements?

As at the date of writing, the Department of Health has advised that people should remain at distance of 1.5m from one another, and in a place that may remain open to the public, occupiers and operators of the premises must allow at least 4 square metres of space for each person on the premises. 

You may need to:

  • space out your work stations to conform to this rule;
  • implement floor guides for queueing in your workplace;
  • stagger attendance of your workers, where possible;
  • remind people not to congregate;
  • maintain social distancing for meetings.
If you have not already done so, can you transition to a cashless payment system?
  • Encourage cashless transactions such as tap and go, to reduce contact between workers and customers.
How do your core hours of work operate?Where possible, you may consider 

 

  • adjusting the working hours of your workforce in the office; or
  • staggering attendance in the office so that only half (for example) your workforce is present in the workplace on any given day. 

This would help to achieve sufficient physical space per person and minimise the spread of COVID-19. 

Have you considered appropriate support systems for your employees?

It is a demanding time for everyone and there is a lot of uncertainty. It is likely that some of your workers may feel a heightened sense of stress and anxiety, whether in connection to job security, mass changes to an industry, social isolation, their own physical health or vulnerability to the virus. Indeed, these factors may be affecting you too, as you manage your business in these very demanding times. 

There are employee support programs you may consider implementing, which can offer you and your workers access to professional assistance to discuss the issues, implement strategies, and support your workforce’s mental health.  

Do you have operational policies in place to address these new areas of concern?Consider implementing the following policies which should be actively implemented on a continuous basis:

 

  • A social distancing policy, so everyone knows exactly what is expected of them.
  • A Work Health and Safety policy, which covers the responsibilities at every level of an organisation, from management to visitors.
  • A Working From Home policy. This is where you would require your employees to self-certify that their home office is safe and to address any risks that exist. This kind of policy helps alert employees to the factors that contribute to a healthy and safe working environment. At the same time, it helps you as an employer to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure that a home office (which is a place outside of your control), does not pose risks to your employee’s health and safety. 
Have any of your workers tested positive for COVID-19?
  • Workers who have been isolated after having tested positive for COVID-19 can return to work when they have fully recovered and have met the criteria for clearance from isolation.  
  • The criteria may vary depending on circumstances of the workplace and states and territories may manage clearance from isolation differently. Clearance may be by the public health authority or the person’s treating clinician.
  • There are specific criteria for clearance which apply to health care workers and aged care workers. As these may change, these workers should check with a medical practitioner or the public health authority as to whether the criteria for clearance from isolation has been met before they return to work.  
Have any of your workers been in quarantine?
  • If a worker has completed a 14-day quarantine period (either after returning from travel or because they were in close contact with a confirmed case), and if they did not develop symptoms during quarantine, government guidelines provide that they do not need a medical clearance to return to work. 
  • You do not need to ask these workers to be tested for COVID-19 in order to return to work.
Do you have the right communications in place?
  • Post guidelines on all of the above new measures and social distancing guidelines around the workplace in high visibility areas.
  • Clearly communicate to your workers and your customers that if they have any COVID-19 symptoms or are feeling unwell, they must not enter the workplace.
  • Let customers know what measures you are putting in place to ensure their safety and that of your workers by emailing them regular bulletins and displaying information at the workplace itself. 

If you are not sure how to approach any specific scenario in your specific workplace, each state or territory runs a Covid-19 helpline which you can call for further advice.  For advice on your legal obligations and policies, contact LegalVision’s employment law team on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

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