You have probably heard that you need to ensure your workplace is free from risks to health and safety, so far as “reasonably practicable”. But you may not know what this phrase means and what obligations it imposes upon your business. This is especially important in the context of COVID-19, due to the heightened risk of your employees becoming sick while working. This article will explain what “reasonably practicable” means and what measures you should take to ensure safety in your workplace.

What Does Reasonably Practicable Mean?

“Reasonably practicable” is a phrase taken directly from Work Health and Safety legislation. In this context, it means taking all reasonable steps to minimise the risk of harm or injury to the extent that you are capable of doing so. You need to consider several factors, including:

  • how likely it is that the hazard will occur;
  • how much harm would result;
  • what the person concerned knows (or should know) about the hazard and how to eliminate it;
  • whether there are suitable ways to eliminate or minimise the risk; and
  • the cost of eliminating or minimising the risk.

How Does This Apply to My Obligations During COVID-19?

COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in employees working from home. Now that employees are returning to the workplace, they are coming into contact with one another, clients and customers. As an employer, you need to take appropriate measures to prevent the virus from spreading – not only to keep employees and others safe – but to ensure you do not violate your legal obligations to maintain a healthy workplace. What the law considers to be “reasonably practicable” will depend on your unique circumstances. You can determine what steps you should take by accounting for the factors outlined below.

What Is The Likely Risk?

The likelihood of contracting COVID-19 is not insignificant and risk levels are changing day by day. The probability of a case occurring within your workplace will depend on the: 

  • geographical area of your business; and 
  • industry your business is in.

Therefore, you will need to carefully consider your unique situation before deciding upon the appropriate measures to take.

For example, transmission of the virus is far more likely to occur in a cafe than a small office. This is because: 

  • many different customers would pass through a cafe on an average day;
  • people are packed more closely together; and
  • there are more opportunities for contact between waiters and customers, who will each be touching plates, glasses and cutlery.

Therefore, a cafe will be expected to introduce far more stringent measures to meet the threshold of “reasonably practicable” action. In contrast, a small office may only need to institute very basic handwashing, sanitising and social distancing guidelines.

How Much Harm Would Result?

From a health point of view, the harm from contracting coronavirus varies from person to person. However, it can be very serious and even result in death. As such, it is essential to take these measures seriously to protect your employees.

Depending on the industry you work in, the risk of COVID-19 causing harm can be severe, requiring you to take significant steps to protect your employees and customers.

For instance, if you run a nursing home your elderly patients are at significant risk of dying, should they contract the virus. As a result, the consequences of harm will outweigh the cost of the measures that you should take.

Additionally, from an economic point of view, the harm in failing to take appropriate measures could cause another outbreak and extend to another shutdown. This would have further adverse effects on your business.

What Your Employees Know About COVID-19

Although there is a lot we do not yet know, there has been a lot of information distributed about COVID-19 hazards. The public also knows a fair amount about how to eliminate or minimise exposure to the virus. Nonetheless, they may not necessarily know how this translates in terms of safety actions in the context of their work environment.

How to Minimise the Risk

There are various suitable ways to minimise the risk of exposure and transmission to COVID-19.

For example, measures your employees can take include:

  • wearing face masks;
  • cleaning surfaces;
  • maintaining a distance from others; and
  • increasing handwashing.

The Cost of Minimising the Risk   

The cost of minimising the risk of your employees contracting COVID-19 is an important factor and will determine if your business can afford the changes that are needed. If you cannot afford to take a certain step to minimise the risks and this step is not part of social distancing laws, you do not need to carry it out. 

For example, this may include:

  • testing every employee for COVID-19; or
  • deploying an employee to check every patron’s temperature as they enter the business.

However, if a certain measure is mandated by the law, you must comply with it, even if implementing it is too expensive for your business to support. This may mean that you will need to delay the reopening of your business, or make tough decisions about whether you can reopen at all.

For example, if having a maximum of 50 people in your cafe or pub is not commercially viable for your business, you may need to delay opening until the restrictions are eased even further.

How This Applies to Your Business

You need to keep these considerations in mind when determining what measures you should implement to ensure so far as reasonably practicable that your workplace is free from risks to health and safety.

In an office setting, this might involve:

  • requiring that employees wear face masks;
  • asking employees to work from home if they can;
  • moving desk spaces around to ensure greater distancing;
  • increasing the frequency of office cleaning; and
  • staggering breaks to ensure that large groups are not congregating in one area.

Consumer-facing businesses may also wish to impose additional measures, such as:

  • mandating where customers can sit;
  • assigning specific servers to certain areas of the store to limit contact between customers and employees;
  • shifting to disposable tableware; and
  • establishing barriers around counters and doorways to enforce social distancing.

Essentially, you must be aware of all of the potential risks that your employees face and take proportionate measures to address these modes of transmission, with consideration of your resources.

Key Takeaways

As an employer, you need to take measures considered reasonably practicable for you to ensure your employees’ health and safety. This requires balancing the: 

  • risk of transmission in your business;
  • potential harm to your employees; and
  • cost and inconvenience of imposing the measures.

Therefore, what is reasonably practicable will depend on your specific context and capabilities. While it may not be reasonably practicable for one business to mandate temperature checks of all employees, it may be very possible for another business to do so. If you would like legal advice concerning what steps you need to take to provide your employees with a healthy and safe workplace, contact LegalVision’s experienced lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page. 

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