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Coronavirus in the workplace

Managing a health threat like coronavirus in your workplace requires business owners to eliminate or minimise hazards and risks associated with the virus.

Australia is closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

There have been a limited number of confirmed cases of this strain of coronavirus in Australia to date.

In Australia, the model WHS laws require a person conducting a business or undertaking to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace. This includes providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risks to health and safety.

Businesses must identify hazards at the workplace – and the associated risks –  and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks, or to minimise the risks if elimination is not reasonably practicable. Coronavirus is a hazard. You can identify when this hazard may be present at your workplace, and the level of risk it might pose to workers, by monitoring the expert advice (for example, from the Chief Medical Officer or your local state or territory health department) and by talking to your workers.

Whether a control measure is reasonably practicable for you to implement involves consideration of what is able to be done to manage a risk and whether it is reasonable in the circumstances for you to do so. The likelihood of the risk occurring, the degree of harm that might result and the availability and suitability of a control measure are key considerations in determining what measures are reasonable to implement in your circumstances.

If your business involves direct contact with sick or ill patients/customers, you should monitor the coronavirus situation as it develops and review your infection control policies, procedures and practices to ensure they are effective and are being followed.

Workers also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and to not adversely affect the health and safety of others. Workers should always practice hygiene and other measures to protect against infections, including by:

  • washing their hands often, with soap and water, or carrying hand sanitiser and using it as needed
  • covering their mouth while coughing or sneezing
  • seeing a health care professional if they start to feel unwell.

Workers who consider they are at risk of infection of coronavirus should raise this with their manager immediately to enable the business to consider whether additional control measures might be needed (for example, requesting the employee seek medical clearance, or requesting the employee work from home, if possible, during the risk period). Eligible workers would be entitled to personal leave if they are not fit for work due to contracting coronavirus.

The emergence of any new strain of virus provides challenges not only for health professionals and authorities, but employers. Managing coronavirus in the workplace is challenging, simply because of the lag time in accurate information…much is yet to be learned about the virus and its impact on the community. This information gap notwithstanding, the process to demonstrate you have followed your duty of care obligations is (at present) the same as with any other identified workplace risk or hazard: do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks, or to minimise the risks if elimination is not reasonably practicable.

At Bare Bones Consulting, we bang on a lot about the value of HR policies and procedures tailored to your business and this one’s no exception. Having a documented process around managing your workplace health and safety – particularly when new employees start with you – is a smart way to ensure you comply with your duty of care obligations. Like to know more? Give us a call or, if you prefer, get in touch via our “Contact Us” page.

Information taken from Safe Work Australia

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