Safe Work Australia underscores PCBU responsibilities with COVID-19

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, 17 March, 2020 - 15:30
Industry news
National News

Exposure to COVID-19 is a potential hazard for workers and other people at workplaces and PCBUs must have measures in place to protect worker health and safety and manage these risks, according to Safe Work Australia.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic (an infectious disease outbreak that spreads on a global scale).

Currently in Australia, people most at risk of contracting the virus are people who have been in a high-risk country or region recently or been in close contact with someone who is a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Under the model WHS laws, Safe Work Australia said PCBUs must have measures in place to eliminate or manage the risks arising from COVID-19.

“To do this, you should keep up to date with the latest COVID-19 information and advice to ensure that any action taken is appropriate,” said Safe Work Australia in a recent update.

“You may not be able to completely eliminate the risk of workers contracting COVID-19 while carrying out work.

“However, you must do all that is reasonably practicable to minimise the risk of workers of contracting COVID-19.”

There is nothing in the model WHS laws that deals expressly with when a PCBU may direct a worker to stay away from their usual place of work, however, the model WHS laws require PCBUs, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace.

“For example, in discharging your WHS duties you may undertake a risk assessment and form the view, based on all the available information from health authorities and having consulted with your workers, that an appropriate control measure to eliminate or minimise risk to workers and/or other people at the usual workplace, is to require workers and other people to stay away from the usual place of work,” Safe Work Australia said.

“Depending on the circumstances, you might also determine that it is appropriate for workers to work from another location, including their home.”

For other PCBUs this approach may not be reasonably practicable (for example, a workplace that relies on specialised plant or equipment) but there might be other controls that would minimise the risk of infection such as implementing other forms of social distancing or delaying non-essential tasks.

“Participation of workers in discussions about health and safety is important, as they are most likely to know about the risks of their work,” Safe Work Australia said.

“Joint involvement in identifying hazards and assessing and controlling workplace risks will help build worker commitment to this process and any changes that may result.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) also produced a guide for workplaces to help them prepare for COVID-19.

“Employers should start doing these things now, even if COVID-19 has not arrived in the communities where they operate,” WHO said.

“They can already reduce working days lost due to illness and stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 if it arrives at one of your workplaces.”

WHO recommended developing a plan of what to do if someone becomes ill with suspected COVID-19 at a workplace, and the plan should cover putting the ill person in a room or area where they are isolated from others in the workplace, limiting the number of people who have contact with the sick person and contacting the local health authorities.

“Consider how to identify persons who may be at risk, and support them, without inviting stigma and discrimination into your workplace,” WHO said.

“This could include persons who have recently travelled to an area reporting cases, or other personnel who have conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness (e.g. diabetes, heart and lung disease, older age).”

WHO also recommended promoting regular teleworking across the organisation: “If there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in your community the health authorities may advise people to avoid public transport and crowded places,” WHO said.

“Teleworking will help your business keep operating while your employees stay safe.”