Returning to Work: Managing COVID-19 in the Workplace
Written by Luke Musto, Associate
With the great news that the first wave of coronavirus is under control in Australia, Federal and state governments are easing restrictions and many businesses in Sydney will be looking to reopen from as soon as next week (and in other places across Australia they may have already opened).
The National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles and Safe Work Australia’s COVID-19 Resource Kit are the best resources available that guide businesses and workers through the various issues that people will have to deal with as part of the returning to work process.
In today’s post, we will discuss the importance of having a plan for dealing with managing the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace, and specifically if a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus has visited the workplace.
Having a plan
We are already being warned that while the first wave of coronavirus is under control, it is very likely that there will be continued outbreaks and waves of the virus in Australia, with the risk of this increasing as restrictions ease and there is increased movement of people.
With this in mind, it is important that employers have a work health and safety (WHS) duty to their workers to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as much as reasonably practicable. This means having a plan in place to deal with if a confirmed or suspect coronavirus case has visited the workplace.
What to do if someone at the workplace is a potential risk?
Simply put, anyone who is unwell should not be at their workplace. It goes without being said that anyone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus or is being tested should already be in isolation.
Employers should not try and diagnose employees, however, they do have a duty to minimise risks in their workplace. To help with this, Safe Work Australia has provided guidelines on how employers should react in case a person in the workplace displays symptoms or provides information that indicates that there is a risk to the health and safety of others in the workplace. This person is not necessarily an employee – it could also be a visitor to the workplace, such as a customer or client.
These steps are:
- Isolating the person to prevent the risk of it spreading to others;
- Seeking advice from government helplines and assessing the risks (the National Coronavirus Helpline number is 1800 020 080 and operates 24/7);
- Ensuring the person has transport home or to a medical facility (as appropriate);
- Cleaning and disinfecting affected areas, including closing access to affected areas;
- Identifying and telling close contacts (the state or territory public health unit will advise you on this process); and
- Reviewing COVID-19 risk management controls to determine whether any changes or additional control measures should be implemented.
What to do if someone with coronavirus has recently been at the workplace?
The steps are similar for dealing with an incident where someone who has recently attended a workplace is subsequently confirmed as having coronavirus or is suspected as having coronavirus. These steps include:
- seeking advice and assessing the risks;
- identifying and telling close contacts;
- cleaning and disinfecting affected areas; and
- reviewing COVID-19 risk management controls.
Is it necessary to close the workplace for cleaning?
This will depend on a few factors, but a workplace is not automatically required to close completely for cleaning following a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. Factors that will influence this are the nature of work, the number of employees, the size of the workplace and the contaminated areas. As an example, it may be unnecessary to close if the person in question has had limited contact with the workplace, or if health officials advise that there is only a low risk of contamination or exposure.
Do employers need to notify anyone?
There are different notification regulations in each state and territory that must be followed. In NSW, businesses must advise SafeWork NSW on 13 10 50 if there is a case of COVID-19 arising out of the conduct of the business that requires immediate treatment as a hospital in-patient, or if there is a confirmed infection to which their carrying out of work is a significant contributing factor.
When can someone with coronavirus return to work?
Someone who has had coronavirus may return to their workplace once they have completely recovered and have been cleared to do so as per the regulations in the relevant state or territory.
Medical clearance is not needed for someone return to work from the 14-day quarantine period if they have not developed any symptoms.
Understandably, employers and workers will all be eager to get back to the workplace and start getting back to normal as much as possible. It is important that employers have a plan for responding to ongoing potential coronavirus risks, and that they know what to do in the event that there is a confirmed or suspected case in their workplace.
Harris Gomez Group is an Australian law firm with 25 years experience based in Sydney, with sister offices in Santiago and Bogotá. We specialise in business and corporations law, technology law, and cross-border issues. We assist small to medium-sized Australian businesses with a variety of issues, including employment law, property law issues (such as rental contracts) and contract disputes.
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