Coronavirus (COVID-19) People
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and that employers must take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of their staff and others at their workplace.
However, that does not change the advice that has been put out by Federal, State Governments, Health Departments and AMIC, as to the actions that employer, employees and the general public should take to remove or reduce the risk of contracting the disease.
Click on the following link to access the Coronavirus Fact Sheet for Employers:
As mentioned in earlier correspondence to members this week, it is recommended that you take a risk management approach to this disease just like any other risk to your business.
Step 1 Gather information and keep everyone informed
It is very important that employers, employees, your customers and suppliers keep themselves informed and up to date on the risks of the COVID-19 virus and obtain information and advice from the relevant Government websites.
It is recommended that you should designate a person/s in your establishment to source and distribute the information. This would include regular updates from authorised sources of information including:
• State and Federal Government health authorities;
• Safety regulators in each State and Territory; and
• the WHO.
Step 2 Assess the risk
Given the potentially widespread health risk to your staff and supply chains, it is important to assess the level of risk that the virus poses to your organisation.
In the case of the COVID-19 virus, there will be both health risks and commercial risks that need to be considered.
In terms of health risks, the factors that will influence the level and gravity of risk your organisation faces will include:
• The industry within which you operate.
• Size, geographic location and demographics of your workforce.
• Nature of the work performed by your employees.
• Frequency of travel and interaction with others.
• Likelihood of exposure of staff to the virus outside of your workplace.
• Culture of reporting safety issues.
• Adequacy of current systems of work to prevent the spread of viruses.
Once you have formed a view as to the level of risk your organisation faces, and where that risk is greatest, you can then develop a plan of action to control those risks.
Step 3 Developing controls measures
Providing clear and regular updates to staff is one of the most important controls to put in place.
Staff need to have a clear knowledge of four key matters:
1. Medical information regarding isolation/quarantine periods and what steps they should take if they feel unwell, think they may have the virus or have recently returned from an infection zone.
2. Reinforcement of hygiene processes in the organisation to reduce the spread of viruses.
3. The employers plan of action if an employee, or someone close to them, is diagnosed with the virus and the impact that this will have on the rest of the staff coming to work. Importantly, whether the office or site will be closed, and for how long.
4. Any changes in policies relating to travel, client and staff functions, including the banning of travel to virus-affected areas.
In the case of someone who is suspected or confirmed to have the virus, an employer should encourage or direct the employee to stay at home if they are:
• well enough to receive care at home;
• able to have appropriate caregivers at home;
• able to stay in a separate bedroom;
• able to get access to food and other necessities;
• able to access recommended personal protective equipment, including at a minimum, gloves and mask; and
• not living with others who may be at increased risk of complications from the virus such as the elderly, young or pregnant women, or people who are immunocompromised.
If an employee suspects that they may be infected and are waiting on test results but cannot be isolated at home, they will need to contact a public health unit who will assess and advise on the next steps. As an employer, you will need to ensure that you are kept informed of your employees progress. The time it takes to get the test results may be as little as 24 hours, which can reduce the time the person is restricted from accessing your premises subject to a negative test result.
Step 4 Briefing your management team
As with any systems of work, it is critical that your managers and supervisors are briefed on the response plan to a potential outbreak of the virus in your business. Managers need to know the steps that are to be taken if, for example, an employee returns from an infection zone or reports that they, or person to whom they have had close contact, may be suspected of having the virus.
Can the Federal or State Government or Department direct me to close my premises?
Although there is no current order from the Federal or any State/Territory Government, depending on how serious COVID-19 becomes in Australia, the Commonwealth may gain a range of powers that could affect employers. Under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth), these powers can be used to combat a listed human disease. COVID-19 was added to the list on 21 January 2020.
Most of the powers relate to individuals or places that are suspected of actually harbouring a listed human disease. Government officials can impose human biosecurity control orders on particular people which can restrict their movement or confine them to isolation. Failing to comply with a control order is an offence punishable by five years imprisonment.
Officials can also declare human health response zones so that certain classes of people cannot enter particular areas, including specific premises such as a workplace or school. The Attorney-General has already suggested that these orders could be used widely if the situation deteriorates.
If they are used, these powers could affect the ability of many employees to enter the workplace themselves. The Government can also declare a more general human biosecurity emergency. An emergency can be declared if the Health Minister is satisfied that COVID-19 poses a severe and immediate threat to human health on a nationally significant scale, and that the declaration is needed to control the spread of the disease.
During the emergency, the Health Minister may make general requirements, or direct anyone to do anything which is needed to control the spread of the disease.
Relevantly for employers, the Minister may direct a person who is in a position to close premises, or prevent access to premises, to do so. If an emergency were declared in response to COVID-19, the Health Minister could instruct employers to close their workplaces, or principals to shut down their schools.
The Minister could also issue general requirements which require specified places to be evacuated or which restrict movement in specified places, such as named workplaces. Breaching an emergency requirement or direction is an offence punishable by imprisonment for five years.
What do I do if an employee has COVID-19 and has been at my worksite?
In the meantime, if it is confirmed that a person has contracted COVD-19 and has been present at your site, whether as a worker, contractor or even a visitor, it is then recommended that you take the following actions.
The first thing to do is to identify who they have come in contact with at the site and to advise these persons that they may be at risk of contracting the virus. They should be directed to leave the premises and to get tested for the virus at a local GP or clinic. You should also have a contingency plan to have another person fill positions in the period the worker/s is/are absent.
You should then thoroughly clean all areas where the infected person has been in the premises and implement measures to assess level of risk of the disease on to others in the workplace.
It is at your discretion, following this assessment, as to whether you decide to temporarily close the site for the purposes of cleaning the whole site or as a precaution for all workers. In such circumstances you may decide to allow employees access to their accrued personal/carers leave. Annual leave can be used subject to agreement of both parties.
Note: that the Federal Government has recently announced that casual employees who are needing to self-isolate can access sickness payments through Centrelink.
Am I required to notify the Department of Health that an employee has contracted COVID-19?
No (except for Victoria). Medical practitioners and Hospitals Chief Executives are required to report notifiable conditions to their local public health unit (PHU) on the basis of reasonable clinical suspicion.
How do I keep employees informed?
Employers can ensure they are providing lawful and reasonable directions by referring to published authorities such as Federal/State Government medical advice, WHO announcements and smart traveller recommendations.
Other options include:
• Directing staff to work from home, if possible, or other locations.
• Directing employees likely to have been exposed to self-isolate until test results clear them.
• Utilising teleconferences, Skype and cancelling face-to-face meetings or seminars.
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