Multiple regulators issue safety warnings over coronavirus outbreak

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Tuesday, 4 February, 2020 - 16:30
Industry news
National News

Safe Work Australia and a number of WHS regulators across the country have issued safety warnings in the wake of an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus (2019-nCoV) first identified in Wuhan, 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).

While there have been a limited number of confirmed cases of this strain of coronavirus in Australia to date, Safe Work Australia said coronavirus is a hazard and urged organisations to monitor expert advice provided by the likes of the Chief Medical Officer in local state or territory health departments.

“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,” Safe Work Australia said in a statement.

“If you or your workers are planning to travel overseas for work, particularly to China, monitor the latest Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel advice on the Smartraveller website.”

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, and 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.

WorkSafe Victoria also issued a safety alert about the coronavirus outbreak and noted that while it is not yet understood how this particular form of the coronavirus is transmitted, viruses in general can spread through:

  • direct person-to-person contact, touching infected surfaces or from handling infected materials (viruses can survive for some hours on common surfaces and can be transmitted by hand to infect the nose, eyes or mouth)
  • airborne droplet transmission over a distance of about one metre, through coughs and sneezes
  • aerosol transmission through indoor air containing concentrations of the virus suspended in moisture or dust particles


SafeWork NSW also urged caution and said “it doesn’t matter if you’re a worker or someone who is responsible for workers (for example, a business), you must manage the risk.”

Businesses that have direct contact with sick or ill patients/customers should review their infection control policies and procedures and monitor the coronavirus situation as it develops.

SafeWork NSW noted that individuals who have not visited Wuhan, or come into contact with someone from Wuhan are unlikely to be at risk of contracting coronavirus.

“If you have visited Wuhan or come into contact with someone who has, please monitor your health and seek advice from NSW Health via the health direct helpline 1800 022 222,” SafeWork NSW said.

WorkSafe Victoria also urged those affected by recent bushfires to be alert about unexpected hazards in the process of clean-up and recovery work.

Asbestos, fallen powerlines, fallen or damaged trees and unstable structures are among the risks to health and safety facing those working on fire-affected properties.

The regulator said employers and property owners in areas where it was safe to return need to take time to fully consider the risks involved in each task before commencing any clean-up activities.