Working through COVID-19
We don’t know how long the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to impact our working lives. Most Australian organisations have already made changes to the way they do business in an attempt to contain the public health crisis.
If you haven't already got one in place, we strongly encourage you to create an infectious disease preparedness and response plan, specific to each workplace, that takes into account guidance from relevant authorities. It’s also important to understand workers’ personal level of risk (e.g. over 60, immunocompromised) and address these.
Now more than ever, it’s also important to maintain open lines of communication between workers and management. It’s vital that management understand what workers are worried about – be it pay, leave, safety, health etc. If worker fears can be allayed, great; if not, employers have a role to play in helping workers prepare for difficult times ahead.
In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has advised workplaces to be ready to meet the challenges of:
- More absenteeism due to illness, caring responsibilities, fear of exposure and contact with immunocompromised family members.
- Social distancing – e.g. via staggered work shifts, downsizing, remote service delivery.
- Changes to consumer demand, with demand likely to rise for items related to infection prevention and decline in relation to some other goods. Shopping patterns may also change – e.g. preferred time and methods of shopping.
- Interrupted supply and delivery, with delays and cancellations in geographically affected regions.
OSHA is a good source of information about the likely business impacts of COVID-19, but the sheer quantity of advice currently circulating online can be overwhelming. Below we provide links to authoritative sources of information to help you navigate these unprecedented times.
Up-to-date-advice about COVID-19 in Australia
- A regularly updated coronavirus health alert, from the Department of Health.
- Information for employers, from the Department of Health.
- ABC’s Coronacast podcast, with Dr Norman Swan, which has authoritative, non-governmental information and advice, and directly answers some listener questions.
Workers' compensation in a pandemic
Safe Work Australia (SWA) has shared clear advice for employers, including information about the workers’ compensation implications of COVID-19.
In short, it’s going to be very hard to establish the work-relatedness of COVID-19 infections in many cases, particularly as the number of infections increase. However, work-relatedness may be more easily established in some groups such as healthcare workers caring for patients with the infection.
“Compared to work-related injuries, it is more difficult to prove that a disease was contracted in, or caused by, particular employment. In the case of a virus such as COVID-19, establishing the time and place of contraction may become increasingly hard. Whilst the spread of COVID-19 is contained, it may be easier to establish whether contraction is work-related, for example, if in the course of their employment a worker travels to a high-risk area with a known viral outbreak or interacts with people who have contracted the virus. However, once the virus becomes more wide-spread in the local community, establishing the degree of contribution of a worker’s employment to their contraction of the virus will inevitably be more difficult.”
However, this doesn’t mean employers are off the hook – there’s lots that can be done to slow the spread and protect workers.
SWA has outlined some of the rights and responsibilities of businesses, answering a series of frequently asked questions including:
- When can an employer direct a worker to stay away from their usual place of work under the model WHS laws?
- What else should an employer take into account when deciding whether a worker or other people need to stay away from their usual place of work?
- What are the WHS risks an employer should consider if workers are working from home?
- Do workers or other people need to comply with a direction from an employer to stay away from their usual place of work?
- Can a worker refuse to come to work?
- People at my workplace are feeling stressed and anxious because of COVID-19. How do I meet my work, health and safety duties when it comes to risks to psychological health?
Information for specific workers’ compensation jurisdictions
Comcare has issued guidance for workers and employers on work health and safety and workers’ compensation in relation to the coronavirus outbreak. The information includes advice on WHS obligations, managing risks and compensation coverage.
SafeWork NSW - Coronavirus
WorkCover QLD- Coronavirus (COVID-19) workplace risk management
Northern Territory Worksafe
WorkSafe Tasmania - Novel coronavirus (COVID-19)
SafeWork SA - Coronavirus (COVID-19) workplace information
Managing COVID-19 risks at work
In addition to the Australian resources above, this pandemic checklist for businesses, developed in the US, may be helpful.
Where possible, remote work is a good option as it should help slow the spread of the disease. Organisations that can’t accommodate remote work across the board may consider it for specific at-risk groups, for example pregnant workers and those with immunocompromising conditions.
It’s also important that employers take a flexible, non-punitive approach so that workers are empowered to protect themselves and each other.
Sick workers should be encouraged to stay at home. Don’t get hung up on medical certificates – the health systems is already overstretched at the moment. People may also need to stay home to care for children or sick family members, and this should be supported wherever possible.
Businesses should ensure that their sick leave policies are consistent with public health guidance, and that workers are aware of this. If temp or contract workers form part of the workforce, business should consider letting their employers know that non-punitive leave policies are supported at this time.
Basic measures to prevent infection at work:
- Frequent and thorough hand washing – soap and running water is best
- Alcohol-based hand rubs with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water is not readily available
- Encourage workers to stay home if they’re sick
- Encourage respiratory etiquette – covering coughs and sneezes (into tissues or the crook of the elbow)
- Provide appropriate bins to collect tissues
- If possible be flexible about the timing and location of work
- Discourage equipment sharing – phones, tools, desks etc.
- Keep working areas clean using disinfectant. Check that the disinfectant is actually effective in killing viruses and is being used for the period of time on the instructions.
Workers should be encouraged to self-monitor for signs of COVID-19, especially if they suspect possible exposure. Policies and procedures that enable workers to report illnesses or relevant symptoms should be communicated to the entire workforce.
In case of possible infection, businesses should be prepared to:
- Keeping any possibly infected workers separate from healthy workers.
- Designate areas with closable doors to isolate potentially sick people until they can l