Returning to Work part 1: What do I need to do to keep my employees (and customers) safe?

by Oct 9, 2021All Posts, Covid 19, WH&S

Wherever you are in Australia you’ll have to abide by your state or territory’s restrictions. You might be living somewhere that COVID-19 is currently under control, or things still might be quite risky. Whatever the situation where you are, with interstate travel slowly returning and no vaccine in place, it’s important to remain diligent and, above all, safe.

The first thing you’ll need to do is undertake a Risk Assessment. This is an important step for any business, whether it’s a COVID-19 risk or any other potential hazard.

What risks do I need to look for?

  • Do you have employees returning from interstate or overseas travel, or who have been in contact with confirmed cases? What about customers who come into your workplace?
  • Next, think about your work environment and activities. What kinds of proximity to others do people need? Is there shared equipment or workspaces? Is any physical contact required between employees and/or customers?
  • Thinking about your risk factors above, decide where COVID-19 transmission in your workplace sits on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being rare and 10 being almost certain. For instance, if your workplace doesn’t require physical contact or close proximity between people, your risk of transmission will be a lot lower than a workplace requiring a large amount of close contact.
  • Next, think about whether you have vulnerable people working for you, or you work with an at-risk demographic. Obviously if you work with people who are elderly or have other underlying health conditions the seriousness of a COVID-19 infection is much greater than with otherwise healthy people. Plot this on a similar scale. Looking at these two factors together will help you ascertain the severity of risk of COVID-19 transmission in your workplace.

With this information in mind, implement appropriate control measures to either eliminate or minimize the risk. Obviously, elimination is the ideal, but it may not always be possible.

Every workplace will be different. Maybe group meetings need to be conducted via video conferencing (even when everyone is at the same workplace) to avoid the need for large gatherings in small conference rooms. Consider whether you need to invest in Perspex sheeting, adding hygiene stations, or staging time in the office, with cleaning in between.

You should be providing antibacterial hand wash and/or hand sanitiser, and informing staff about proper hygiene and social distancing. The nature of your individual workplace will determine whether it’s necessary for employees to be wearing masks and gloves.

Make sure you consult regularly with your employees to help them feel safe and identify any areas of concern they have.

What if I can’t afford expensive modifications to my workplace?

You have a legal obligation to take responsible steps to manage risks within your workplace as much as is reasonably practical. If your COVID-19 transmission risk is minimal, or the consequences of transmissions are minor, then you’re not likely to be greatly out-of-pocket.

If, on the other hand, your workplace is high risk or the people you work with or come into contact with are in a high-risk category, it’s important to do whatever it takes to protect people. It’s better to absorb an increased cost now than have to bear more serious consequences later.

Not all modifications need to be expensive. Think creatively about other ways to minimise risk, or come up with a strategy to pay for any modifications needed.

Remember, the higher the risk of transmission, or the more serious the consequences, the higher the responsibility of the employer to control the risk.

What about off-site? My employees work mostly in client’s homes/other premises. What responsibilities do I have in these cases?

As an employer, you have the same health and safety obligations to your employees no matter where their work is performed. This includes working from home, or in other businesses’ premises.

In this situation, you should undertake a risk assessment (as outlined above) in consultation with your employees and anybody else involved, and put in appropriate controls as identified.

What do I do if one of my employees still considers things unsafe, and won’t come back to work?

The first thing you need to do is talk to them. Many people have extra levels of concern, either because of their own health or because of the potential impact of COVID-19 on family members. It’s important to have an honest conversation and try and identify the root cause of their concern.

Once you understand where they’re coming from you’re best able to address the issue. If working from home remains an option, then try this, or discuss what extra levels of protection would enable them to feel safer in the workplace.

If your risk assessment has shown that risks cannot be fully mitigated, consider work that your employee can do to that doesn’t involve being in a space they consider unsafe.

If, after proper discussion and risk assessment, your employee still refuses to return to work without a reasonable excuse, you may be able to commence a disciplinary procedure on the basis of unauthorised absence. Contact us on1800 577 515 if you need to discuss this further.

Do I need to keep an eye on my employee’s health?

It’s your responsibility as an employer to keep ALL your employees safe where possible. By asking employees who are unwell or have been exposed to COVID-19 to stay away from the workplace you are doing everyone a favour.

If you notice an employee displaying symptoms associated with COVID-19 you can ask them to leave, take personal leave (either paid or unpaid, depending on circumstances), and get tested as soon as possible.

If you need further help with this, such as a situation where an employee refuses to take personal leave, contact our Help Line on 1800 577 515 for further advice.

What if an employee, or another person in the workplace, is diagnosed with COVID-19?

In the event someone in the workplace is diagnosed with COVID-19, we recommend you follow the guidance of Safe Work Australia in handling this. You can find this guidance here. You can also contact our Help Line on 1800 577 515 for further guidance.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow we’ll be discussing what happens when you return employees from stand-down.

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