OHS Obligations in the Workplace Amidst COVID-19

In BICSI Blog, BICSI Bytes, Featured, News by info@bicsi.com.au

SafeWork Australia recently published helpful COVID-19 safety guidelines in the workplace for both employers and employees.

Employer/manager/business-owner responsibilities

The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require employers to take care of the health, safety and welfare of workers, including staff, contractors and volunteers, and others (clients, customers, visitors) at their workplace. This includes:

  • providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risk to health and safety;
  • providing adequate and accessible facilities for the welfare of workers to carry out their work; and
  • monitoring the health of workers and the conditions of the workplace for the purpose of preventing illness or injury.

Employers have a duty to their workers to do what they can to ensure the health and safety of their workers, which includes eliminate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 if reasonably practicable.

If employers are not able to eliminate the risk of exposure to COVID-19, they must minimise that risk, as far as is reasonably practicable by, for example:

  • implementing working from home arrangements;
  • requiring workers to practice physical distancing;
  • requiring workers to practice good hygiene (e.g. through workplace policies and ensuring access to adequate and well stocked hygiene facilities);
  • requiring workers to stay home when sick; and
  • cleaning the workplace regularly and thoroughly.

Employers must ensure the work of their business or undertaking doesn’t put the health and safety of other persons (such as customers, clients and visitors) at risk of contracting COVID-19, by protecting others by, for example:

  • requiring them to practice physical distancing, including through contactless deliveries and payments requiring them to practice good hygiene: and
  • requiring others to stay away from the workplace, unless essential, e.g. family, friends, visitors.

Employers must also maintain their workplace to ensure the work environment does not put workers and others at risk of contracting COVID-19 by, for example:

  • cleaning the workplace regularly and thoroughly;
  • restructuring the layout of the workplace to allow for physical distancing; and
  • limiting the number of people in the workplace at any given time.

Employers must also provide adequate facilities in their workplace to protect workers from contracting COVID-19 with facilities:

  • washroom facilities including adequate supply of soap, water and paper towel; or hand sanitiser, where it’s not possible for workers to wash their hands;
  • staff rooms that are regularly cleaned and allow for physical distancing; and
  • regular breaks to use these facilities, particularly to allow workers to wash their hands.

Employers must provide their workers with any information or training that is necessary to protect them from the risk of exposure to COVID-19 arising from their work. Information and training may include:

  • providing guidance on how to properly wash hands:
  • training workers in how to fit and use any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE):
  • training workers to exercise adequate cleaning practices throughout the day:
  • providing workers with instructions on how to set up a safe home workplace; and
  • providing workers with instructions on staying home from work if sick.

Employers must also consult with workers on health and safety matters relating to COVID-19. When consulting, employers must give workers the opportunity to express their views and raise WHS concerns. Employers must take the views of workers into account and advise workers of the outcome of consultation.

Consult with workers:

  • when conducting a risk assessment;
  • when making decisions on control measures to use to manage the risk of exposure to COVID-19 (e.g. when introducing working-from-home arrangements, or restricting the workplace to allow for physical distancing);
  • when making decisions about the adequacy of the workplace facilities to allow for control measures such as physical distancing and hygiene;
  • when proposing other changes that may affect the health and safety of workers; and
  • when changing any procedures that have an impact on the WHS of workers.

Employers must allow workers to express their views and raise WHS issues that may arise directly or indirectly because of COVID-19. Employers must take the views of workers into account when making decisions and advise workers of decisions. Consultation doesn’t require consensus or agreement, but employers must allow workers to be part of the decision-making process. If workers are represented by health and safety representatives (HSR), they must be included in the consultation process.

Worker responsibilities

Workers must take reasonable care of themselves and not do anything that would affect the health and safety of others at work (e.g. coming to work when unwell).

Workers must follow any reasonable health and safety instructions from their employer.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 it is important that workers:

  • work safely and observe any new requirements for physical distancing (even if it means performing tasks in a different way to what they’re used to);
  • follow instructions (e.g. about how to wash hands thoroughly);
  • ask if not sure how to safely perform the work;
  • use PPE in the way they were trained and instructed to use it; and
  • report unsafe or unhealthy situations (e.g. lack of soap in the bathroom) to supervisor or to HSR.