Advice for Workplace Safety14 May 2020
As restrictions ease around the country and more people return to work, employers are now facing the challenge of ensuring their workplaces are safe and healthy for all. Safe Work Australia (SWA) has developed extensive resources, fact sheets and checklists to assist with health and safety in the workplace.
The SWA website now acts as a central hub of Work Heath and Safety guidance and tools that all Australian workplaces can use to successfully form the basis of their management of health and safety risks posed by COVID-19. The following summary is a good starting point.
COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles
On 24 April 2020, the Australian National Cabinet agreed to a set of National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles.
Number one on the list is that “All workers, regardless of their occupation or how they’re engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment”.
Practices must, in consultation with their employees, “assess the way they work to identify, understand and quantify risks and to implement and review control measures to address those risks”.
The COVID-19 crisis is by no means over and vigilance must be maintained to ensure that any potential outbreaks are identified and contained. All employers 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.”
At a time when everyone is experiencing information overload, it’s important that employers communicate openly and honestly with employees about the measures they are putting in place to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19. During consultations, employees must be given the opportunity to express their views and raise WHS concerns. You must take the views of employees into account and advise them of the outcome of consultation.
Open communication with clients, fellow consultants and contractors/subcontractors should also be a priority. See the below section On Site for specific advice and links regarding construction sites.
Guidance for COVID-19 Work Health and Safety
Safe Work Australia offers the following basic advice to keep workers safe and limit the spread of COVID-19 at their workplace, with links to more detailed information.
Existing Policies and Practices
Review your existing policies and practices and consider whether changes need to be made in light of the pandemic. Is it practicable for some people to continue to work from home and is it safe for them to do so? Can you alternate staff so they can work from home some of the time and come in to the practice at other times for discussions and meetings? Have you briefed your employees on what to do if they start to feel unwell?
The most common way for COVID-19 to spread is through close contact with an infected person. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious whether a person is infected (they may be asymptomatic but still contagious), so physical distancing must be maintained in the office at all times, keeping a distance of at least 1.5 metres between people. Some practical ways to ensure physical distancing include:
- Implement contactless deliveries.
- Move work stations, desks and tables further apart. Where possible, provide each person with 4 square metres of space in enclosed areas in accordance with general health advice.
- You may need to redesign the layout of the workplace and your workflows to enable workers to physically distance from each other. This can be achieved by restricting employees and others to certain pathways or areas, and spreading out furniture to increase distancing.
- Consider adding floor and/or wall markings and signage to identify 1.5 metres distancing requirements so far as is reasonably practicable.
- Bring in shift arrangements so less staff are in the workplace at once. Schedule time between shifts so that there is no overlap of staff arriving at and leaving the workplace or have different entrances and exits to avoid interaction.
- Have meetings by phone or online instead of in person. If not possible, require meetings are in a large space and keep meetings short.
- Limit the number of attendees to face-to-face meetings or training sessions.
- Consider nominating a person in the office to be responsible for keeping everyone the required 1.5 metre distance apart.
Handwashing and Hygiene
It’s been almost two months since we first heard the instruction to wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser (with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol). This instruction is no less important today. Washing hands frequently and practising good hygiene is advised for everyone in the workplace and will be increasingly important as we also ward off colds and flu as we head into winter.
Safe Work Australia offers the following advice:
- frequent hand washing with soap or hand sanitising, including before and after you eat and after going to the bathroom.
- limiting contact with others, including through shaking hands
- stop touching your eyes, nose and face
- consider adding automatic alerts on computers to remind employees about washing hands and not touching eyes, nose and face.
- covering your mouths while coughing or sneezing with a clean tissue or your elbow, and putting used tissues straight into the bin.
- have hand sanitiser stations on entry and exit points and around the workplace, and make sure you refill them.
- increase access to closed bins
Signage and Posters
As well as including computer alert reminders for employees, have signs and posters around the workplace to remind everyone of good hygiene practices and how to minimise the risks of COVID-19.
Additional Cleaning and Disinfection
Many workplaces will need to ramp up their usual cleaning regimes to ensure a safer workplace. Removal of germs such as the virus that causes COVID-19 requires thorough cleaning followed by disinfection.
Safe Work Australia has a comprehensive fact sheet available on Environment cleaning and disinfection principles for COVID-19, including detailed guidance and protocols for cleaning staff.
Beyond scheduled cleaning on a daily basis, there are several other cleaning recommendations suggested by Safe Work Australia:
- Clean frequently touched areas and surfaces, such as elevator buttons, door knobs, counter tops, sinks and keyboards, several times a day. Clean with a detergent or disinfectant solution or wipe regularly.
- Employees should be encouraged to clean personal property that comes to work, such as sunglasses, mobile phones and ipads with disinfectant, such as disinfectant wipes.
- When cleaning, employees should minimise the risk of being infected with COVID-19 by wearing gloves and washing their hands thoroughly or using alcohol-based hand sanitiser before and after wearing gloves.
For more information, see the COVID-19 resource kit, which includes a number of useful fact sheets and checklists.
Safe Work Champions
As we all head back to work and life appears to go back to normal, it’s almost inevitable that some people will become lax with the rules.
Safe Work recommends nominating an employee or team of employees to champion safe practices in the workplace and teach their colleagues the proper procedures listed above.
Safe Work Australia has compiled detailed resources for the building and construction industry, which includes information on an employer's duties under WHS laws, plus advice and guidance on hygiene, cleaning, PPE, workers' rights, risk assessment, health monitoring, and preparing for an emergency.
A number of industry associations and unions in Victoria have joined together to support the development of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidelines for the Building and Construction Industry Victoria. Hosted on the Victorian Building Authority website, the document includes detailed information on controlling risks on site and employee relations, and includes an extensive list of frequently asked questions.
One thing is clear – the threat of COVID-19 will be with us for some time. Federal and state governments have warned that there will be future outbreaks as the economy is opened up and we start moving around again. It’s important to have plans in place for every eventuality, particularly the day when an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19.
Safe Work Australia has a clear, practical, step by step, downloadable infographic on what to do when you have a suspected/confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace.
It’s also wise to consider the following questions, so you are prepared if an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. How will you support that worker and their health and wellbeing? What measures will you need to put in place to ensure the workplace remains safe for other workers?
A good starting point is to ensure you have appropriate cleaning products and personal protective equipment available to disinfect your workplace properly following an outbreak. If you do not, consider options for hiring a cleaning company to do this work.
Ensure you have a business continuity plan in place in the event of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case within your workplace. Have a plan in place if your workplace needs to close for a period of time. Write up a protocol for reopening your practice after an outbreak or quarantine period. Hopefully, you’ll never need to enact these plans and protocols.