COVID-19: a work health and safety perspective

By Veronica Siow, Lachlan Boucaut
COVID-19 Employment & Safety

In brief 3 min read

The progression of COVID-19 continues at pace and businesses are facing an array of challenges and difficult decisions. While there are a number of issues for businesses to work through at this time, this article touches on the key work health and safety (WHS) duties employers need to be aware of.

How does it affect you?

  • Employers have a duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that the workplace is without risks to the health and safety of any person. 
  • This includes a duty to provide information and instruction to employees about the health risks posed by COVID-19, and to monitor, assess and take steps to mitigate those risks. 
  • Employers must also consult, cooperate and coordinate with other duty holders within their workplace who have overlapping WHS duties.

Key takeaways

As employers are aware of COVID-19, they must take 'reasonably practicable' steps to ensure their workplaces are safe from it.

What is 'reasonably practicable' in relation to COVID-19 would, in the current climate, require employers to direct those who can work from home to do so. For those whose duties cannot be performed from home, or whose business has been nominated an 'essential service', the employer's reasonably practicable steps would include the following:

  • providing hand sanitisers, soap and paper towels to employees throughout the workplace and providing instructions on correct hand washing procedures;
  • scheduling additional cleaning of the workplace, especially surfaces which are touched regularly;
  • temporarily closing and deep cleaning any areas that may have been exposed to an individual that has, or may have, COVID-19;
  • setting up the workplace to enable workers to comply with social/physical distancing requirements (maintaining a 1.5m distance from other workers or 4sqm between individuals), for example by ensuring that work stations are set apart, or by staggering shifts;
  • staggering the workday, or providing other flexibility to workers so they do not need to catch public transport at busy times; and
  • conducting all meetings online / by phone.

Employers should consider the current guidance and advice of the authorities when responding to a potential exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. 

If one or more workers in the workplace were to test positive for COVID-19:

  • the relevant State WHS regulator must be notified of the infected employee;
  • that employee must remain away from the workplace for 14 days and be medically cleared fit before returning to the workplace;
  • workers who may have been in direct contact with the infected employee should be informed of the contact, tested for COVID-19 and required to self-isolate for 14 days;
  • the parts of the workplace where the infected and potentially infected employees have been working will need to be cleaned and sanitised thoroughly, in accordance with Department of Health guidelines. The relevant areas should be closed off until they have been cleaned;
  • any other person conducting a business undertaking and their workers on site (eg contractors) will need to be notified.

Employers should also note that:

  • the Health Minister (Cth) can direct that the workplace (or any part of it) be closed to prevent or control the spread of COVID-19;
  • the Health Minister (NSW) can similarly take any action or give any directions necessary to deal with risk to public health – this would extend to a direction that any premise be closed;
  • SafeWork NSW can issue a prohibition notice to require work to stop if it were to deem the site unsafe (eg, if it were to consider that the site was not properly cleaned and disinfected after a worker tested positive).

For further information on COVID-19 and your business, see our hub.