COVID-19 Series: The “New Normal” - Work Health & Safety Considerations for Employers and Employ

On 8 May 2020 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the National Cabinet's three-stage plan to ease restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It will be the decision of each of the state and territory leaders as to when and how the plan is rolled out in each jurisdiction.

So what does returning to work look like and what do you need to know to ensure you are complying with your obligations.

Each stage of the plan is underpinned by the need to:

  • Maintain 1.5-meter distancing when possible;

  • Maintain good handwashing practices and cough/sneeze hygiene;

  • Stay home when unwell, and get tested when exhibiting respiratory symptoms or fever;

  • Download the COVIDSafe App; and

  • Develop COVID safe plans for workplaces

Developing COVID safe plans for workplaces

It is important to start considering now how you will develop and implement a COVID safe plan for your workplace. As part of Workplace Health & Safety, employers are required to put measures in place to eliminate or minimise the risk of a worker contracting the virus. This means doing everything reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk of a worker contracting COVID-19 at work. Where it’s not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk completely, you must minimise the risk of your workers contracting COVID-19 at the workplace as much as you can.

Plans will need to be tailored to each business’s circumstances, including its location, services and employees.

If your business can continue to operate with employees working from home, the current plan recommends this continues during stages one and two. However, employers may wish to stagger the return to work of some employees in office environments, to allow for the return of some workers into an office environment in a controlled manner. It is important to work with your staff during this process and outline the steps that the business is taking to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace.

If your business is considering implementing a return to work plan, you should consider:

  1. Identifying risks and harms to your workplace, and how to mitigate or eliminate those risks;

  2. How your staff will travel to and from work. The NSW Government has announced new guidelines for public transportation, including limits on passenger numbers for trains and buses. The Premier has already warned that public transport should be avoided during peak hours, and businesses transitioning staff back into an office environment should consider if changes to patterns of work should be implemented so as to address risks of public transportation during peak hours.

  3. How physical distancing will be achieved in the workplace:

  • In open plan offices, consideration should be had to the size of the space and whether employee numbers in the office need to be limited;

  • If your business utilises “hot desking”, you may similarly need to consider how to manage employees returning to the office, and ensure shared surfaces are cleaned regularly or develop a policy to ensure staff are cleaning shared desks and computer equipment after use;

  • Ensure you are observing any State guidelines or restrictions on the number of persons in your premises at any one time, with reference to the size of the office.

  1. Developing a plan regarding regular cleaning of the workplace;

  2. Making hand sanitiser available to visitors at entry and exit points of your workplace;

  3. Ensuring employees are, where possible, able to access water and soap for regular hand-washing, or otherwise ensuring employees have access to hand sanitiser;

  4. Management of return to work for vulnerable employees or employees in close contact with vulnerable persons (including older employees and those with underlying medical conditions);

  5. Where feasible, implementing systems to keep a record of employee interactions with clients and the public, and the contact details of those persons, to facilitate contact tracing if your business is notified of potential exposure to COVID-19;

  6. If (with reference to any health guidelines for the use and/or need for personal protective equipment (“PPE”)) any PPE is required to be sourced and worn for employees while ensuring employees receive proper training on the usage of PPE if it is required.

  7. Consider the development and implementation of policies to prevent employees from attending the workplace when sick or ill, regardless of whether their symptoms are indicative of COVID-19. Careful consideration should be had to the impact of such policies on employees with chronic illnesses, to ensure they are not disproportionately impacted or discriminated against under such policies;

  8. Consulting your employees regularly regarding any concerns they have returning to an office or workplace environment and making an effort to consider and address these concerns. Demonstrating to employees that you are hearing and responding to their concerns may go a long way to reducing stress and avoiding disputes with employees;

  9. Having a clear plan in place in the event that an employee or visitor tests positive for COVID-19 (whilst managing your privacy obligations); and

  10. How the business will respond should restrictions be re-imposed.

It is important that you stay on top of advice from the Federal and State Governments regarding the easing of restrictions, and any health advice issued by the relevant health authorities. You may wish to designate a person (or team of people, depending on the size of your business) as being responsible for monitoring the latest developments, and reporting to management to ensure the business has all the relevant and up-to-date information at hand when making decisions regarding return to work.

Terri Bell & Co can provide you with guidance on how to implement a return-to-work plan, or assistance in drafting a policy or plan tailored to your business needs. If you would like assistance, please contact Terri Bell & Co at (02) 9191 9856 or at info@tlblaw.com.au

Key Resources For Employers and Businesses

The following Resources are also relevant to NSW Buinesses. Other states and territories should refer to the relevant government website and work health and safety regulator. If you have any questions regarding this please do not hesitate to let us know.

IMPORTANT NOTICE - The information contained in this article is not intended to be comprehensive. It is general in nature and is not intended to be used as a substitute for legal, financial or other professional advice. You must seek specific professional advice tailored to your personal circumstances before taking any action based on this article.

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation. Solicitor directors and legal practitioners employed by Terri Bell & Co Pty Limited are members of the scheme.

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Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation. Solicitor directors and legal practitioners employed by Terri Bell & Co Pty Limited are members of the scheme.

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