The road back to workplaces – 10 safe workplace principles for managing safety risks

By Veronica Siow, Michael Cole, Eden Sweeney
COVID-19 Employment & Safety

In brief 4 min read

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, businesses preparing to transition their workers back to their usual workplaces need to keep in mind the 10 'National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles' (Safe Workplace Principles), announced by the Morrison Government on 24 April 2020, in managing their work health and safety (WHS) risks in light of the serious health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

How does it affect you

  • Businesses should prepare and implement a Return to the Workplace Plan with the Safe Workplace Principles in mind.
  • In particular, businesses should:
    • consult with their workers in assessing the way they work to identify, understand and quantify risks and to implement and review control measures to address those risks;
    • consider what additional measures may be required to control risks for workers who may be more vulnerable;
    • ensure their workplaces are set up for the social distancing and exemplary hygiene measures; and
    • have a plan in place to manage their response if a worker in their workplace tests positive for COVID-19,

with the objective of minimising the incidence and spread of COVID-19.

  • While it is currently unclear whether the Safe Workplace Principles are intended to operate as anything more than guidelines, as each state and territory has agreed to the Principles, it is expected that the WHS regulator in each state and territory will monitor and enforce compliance with those Principles.

What are the Safe Workplace Principles?

The 10 Safe Workplace Principles established by the National Cabinet are accessible via the central hub provided by Safe Work Australia on its website, and are set out in full below.

Recognising that the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency, that all actions in respect of COVID-19 should be founded in expert health advice and that the following principles operate, subject to the measures agreed and implemented by governments through the National Cabinet process

  • All workers, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic requires a uniquely focused approach to work health and safety (WHS) as it applies to businesses, workers and others in the workplace.
  • To keep our workplaces healthy and safe, businesses must, in consultation with workers, and their representatives, assess the way they work to identify, understand and quantify risks and to implement and review control measures to address those risks.
  • As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually relaxed, businesses, workers and other duty holders must work together to adapt and promote safe work practices, consistent with advice from health authorities, to ensure their workplaces are ready for the social distancing and exemplary hygiene measures that will be an important part of the transition.
  • Businesses and workers must actively control against the transmission of COVID-19 while at work, consistent with the latest advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC),1 including considering the application of a hierarchy of appropriate controls where relevant.
  • Businesses and workers must prepare for the possibility that there will be cases of COVID-19 in the workplace and be ready to respond immediately, appropriately, effectively and efficiently, and consistent with advice from health authorities.
  • Existing state and territory jurisdiction of WHS compliance and enforcement remains critical. While acknowledging that individual variations across WHS laws mean approaches in different parts of the country may vary, to ensure business and worker confidence, a commitment to a consistent national approach is key. This includes a commitment to communicating what constitutes best practice in prevention, mitigation and response to the risks presented by COVID-19.
  • Safe Work Australia (SWA),2 through its tripartite membership, will provide a central hub of WHS guidance and tools that Australian workplaces can use to successfully form the basis of their management of health and safety risks posed by COVID-19.
  • States and Territories ultimately have the role of providing advice, education, compliance and enforcement of WHS and will leverage the use of the SWA central hub3 in fulfilling their statutory functions.
  • The work of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission4 will complement the work of SWA, jurisdictions and health authorities to support industries more broadly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic appropriately, effectively and safely.

Applying the hierarchy of controls

The WHS laws of each state and territory impose duties of care on businesses and other duty-holders (eg 'persons conducting a business or undertaking') to assess and manage WHS hazards and risks related to the transmission of COVID-19 in accordance with the hierarchy of controls).

The diagram below demonstrates how the hierarchy of controls applies with respect to COVID-19.5