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Employment and Workplace Relations update: Coronavirus and the workplace

Mar 11, 2020

The recent outbreak of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused widespread and ongoing concern amongst the population.

As a result of this outbreak it is important that employers ensure they are taking appropriate steps to mitigate exposure to risk, from both a workplace health and safety perspective and a practical business perspective.

It is also important that employers understand their legal obligations in relation to employees (and others) to help adequately navigate this outbreak of COVID-19.

Health and safety obligations

Pursuant to workplace health and safety laws, employers are obligated to:

  • identify risks to health and safety in the workplace; and
  • so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate or minimise those risks.

COVID-19 will present different risks to different workplaces. What employers should do to minimise or eliminate these risks will depend on:

  • the level of risk and harm to employees and others (for example, aged-care providers have clients who have a high risk of serious harm as a result of contracting COVID-19); and
  • the availability and suitability of effective control measures.

It is prudent that all employers undertake an assessment of the risk(s) COVID-19 presents to its workforce and others, and ascertain the appropriate steps it should take in the circumstances.

Steps which may assist in minimising the risks include:

  • implementing a COVID-19 policy. Such a policy can outline how the employer intends on dealing with the outbreak (this includes infection control policies), mitigation of risk and the responsibilities of individual employees;
  • reminding employees of good hygiene practices;
  • setting out the circumstances when employees will be asked not to attend work (updates will likely be required as expert advice changes);
  • providing adequate facilities and products (such as hand sanitiser) to allow employees to follow good hygiene practices;
  • increasing cleaning services or protocols within the workplace, such as disinfecting common areas;
  • if possible (and without creating further health and safety risk) facilitating employees to work from home; and
  • advising employees to self-isolate in their home for 14 days if they have been to any of the countries listed by the Australian Government as high risk, or if they have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Further information regarding the COVID-19 is regularly coming to light, and the circumstances are consistently changing. It is therefore important that employers continually monitor expert advice as the coronavirus situation develops, reassess the outbreak situation, and change the plan of action accordingly if necessary.

It is also prudent to remind employees of their own health and safety obligations in the workplace.

Practical business considerations

Communication in such circumstances is key, both from employer to employee and employee to employer.

To minimise disruption in the workplace, we recommend that employers inform employees of:

  • how the employer intends on minimising risk in the workplace; and
  • what the expectations are of individual employees, including in relation to notifying the employer should they feel unwell, or if they have had an increased risk of being in contact with the virus.

Should an outbreak of COVID-19 occur in a workplace, an employer’s legal obligations will depend on the circumstances.

In some circumstances employers will be able to stand down employees or direct them not to attend for work, however, we recommend that employers seek specific legal advice prior to taking any action that may prejudice an employee as a result of COVID-19.

More information

For more information or advice, please contact a member of our Employment and Workplace Relations team on (03) 8600 8888.

Note: This update is a guide only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. BACK