Coronavirus Disease

COVID-19

Latest update February 24, 2021  

Introduction

Currently Australia has a very low level of community infection - however the situation is volatile, particularly as returning travellers are now being diagnosed with the more infectious 'UK' strain of the virus. This has meant that last week, in order to prevent potentially 'third wave', Victoria entered into a five day lock down. As a result, there have been border closures implemented which prevent Victorians entering other states. For more information go to this page: COVID 19 Victorian situation. This includes information on numbers, what employers must now be doing and more. 

NOTE: this material is being updated and amended regularly. 

In January 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease in Hubei Province, China to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. WHO stated there is a high risk of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreading to other countries around the world. On March 10, WHO declared the disease a pandemic.

Currently, the coronavirus COVID-19 is affecting 219 countries and territories and 2 international conveyances around the world. Check out this website for a world map: Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak Across the World, Bloomberg

WHO and public health authorities around the world are taking action to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. However, long term success cannot be taken for granted. All sections of our society – including businesses and employers – must play a role if we are to stop the spread of this disease.  Beginning the week of March 23, Government advice has meant that workers who are able to work from home should be doing so - this is still the case in Victoria.

For more information on what COVID-19 is, how it is spread, the current situation and what the Australian governments are doing, go to the bottom of the page.  

Action Plan for HSRs

COVID-19 has been a serious threat to the health and safety of workers across the country. By law, the health and safety of workers is the responsibility of employers. The failure of government to properly address the issue of casual workers, most of whom found themselves without income during the worst of the outbreaks in Australia if they were not able to work, potentially put the community at risk. 

Under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act employers have a legal duty of care to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees and others at the workplace. (See: Duties of employers) This duty also applies to 'persons conducting a business or undertaking' (PCBUs) under WHS legislation in other Australian states and territories.

Employers are BY LAW required to identify and control risks to health and safety through these four steps:

  1. Identify hazards
  2. Assess risks
  3. Control risks
  4. Review controls

While a number of vaccines have been developed, and have been approved for use in Australia, the roll out, which began on February 22, will take some time. Workers and members who have the greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19 will be offered the vaccine first, and then to other groups.  Advice on Victoria's vaccination program

The need to have control measures in place remains.

Australian workers, many of whom have been working from home for the best part of a year, are now starting to return to their physical workplaces. There are still strict limits in place with regards to numbers and space. The 'rules' vary from state to state, so check the information relevant to you. There are still numbers of workers working from home, and likely to be for some time. Employers still have a duty of care to their employees, even when they are working from home (or 'teleworking'). There are steps employers need to take to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that employees' health and safety is safeguarded. For more information on Teleworking, go to this page.

You may also wish to use our series of checklists, compiled and up to date for current requirements in Victorian workplaces:

General Checklist for HSRs

Checklist for Controls in the Workplace

Checklist for a Confirmed Case

Rights of HSRs 

HSRs have a right to:

  1. get information from the employer - this includes getting information if your employer has had to notify WorkSafe that a worker has tested positive to COVID-19
  2. be consulted when your employer is developing and implementing measures to control the risk of COVID-19 (See: Duty to Consult).  As restrictions are lifted in some areas, HSRs must be consulted on return to work arrangements and measures the employer will take. For workplaces which have either continued to operate, or have employees returning to work, the employer must develop and implement a COVIDSafe plan. The HSR must be consulted and involved in its development, implementation and subsequent amendments. Download this form to use during meetings with the employer, to take note of where agreement has been reached and where it has not.
    WorkSafe Victoria has also released a consultation checklist for HSRs 
  3. get outside assistance such as contacting your union
  4. issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) if your employer fails to:

    1. consult with you when identifying, assessing or developing and implementing measures to control the risk of COVID-19 infection 
    2. take effective measures to control the risk of COVID-19 infection 

VTHC has put together two pro forma PINs for use over the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace: 


i - to issue to an employer you believe to be in breach of Section 21: i.e. the duty of the employer to provide and maintain so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to health

ii - to issue to an employer you believe to be in breach of Section 35: i.e. the duty of the employer to consult with HSRs and employees.

5. where necessary, issue a Cease Work

If still working at the workplace OR going back to work:

There are many workers who will not be able to work remotely. These include:

  • health care workers
  • child care workers
  • emergency and other essential services workers
  • retail workers - supermarket, food and restaurants/cafes/etc doing take away
  • construction workers and
  • .. ?

If you or your DWG are concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19, then raise this issue immediately with your employer. Do not wait for your employer to come to you. Meet with your employer to discuss the possibility of as many people as possible working from home.

Update February 2021: The situation in Victoria, as in other states/territories can change suddenly and this means keeping informed regarding what restrictions/rules need to be followed. As noted above, many workplaces have begun to have workers return to work. All workplaces must have a COVIDSafe plan in place.  The plans must document all measures being taken to ensure the risk of transmission is minimised. And don't forget that before developing, implementing and amending the COVIDSafe plans and procedures, employers must consult with HSRs - if there are no HSRs, then the employer must consult with workers. 

For those HSRs who are at work or have DWG members at work, or who are now returning to work, they need to:

  • check with your DWG members regarding whether they have any concerns and what these are;
  • check the extent of COVID-19 in your community;
  • look at possible workplace factors and/or activities which may increase the risk, for example:
    • contact with people potentially suffering with COVID-19 (for example if your workplace is a hospital emergency department; isolation unit; health care provider; etc)
    • contact with persons arriving from overseas
    • working in close proximity with large numbers of the public
    • check with your employer whether any employee has notified that they have contracted COVID-19
    • etc
  • request a meeting with your employer/employer's health and safety representative to discuss what measures, if any, need to be implemented, when and how. Go through your employer's COVIDSafe plan (if in Victoria). See below for advice to employers based on a WHO publication;
  • ensure that the employer provides adequate training, information and supervision to members of your DWG;
  • if you are concerned that your employer is not doing enough, raise this as an OHS issue (see Resolution of issues)
  • contact your union for further advice, in particular regarding industrial rights (eg payment if isolation is required).

Guidance on returning to work:

  • from SafeWork Australia - on Offices 

    This includes information on restarting air conditioning systems, cleaning and more. 
  • Guidance from the TUC: Return to safe workplaces

    If employers want workers to return to their normal place of work, they must make sure it’s done safely, to protect the health of workers, customers and the public. A new TUC Education online publication gives a step-by-step how-to guide. It goes in turn through Covid-19-specific risk assessments, employers’ duties (obviously based on the UK laws), consultation, and steps to address risks to all workers, including vulnerable workers, and to get approval for plans before going ahead. It also goes through the need to communicate the Covid-19 plan to the workforce, and for employers to publish their workplace plan on the company website. There’s lots more, and it is easy to navigate – have a look. Return to safe workplacesTUC Education, May 2020.

  • From the ILO: a Guidance Note, A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is accompanied by a 10-point, Practical Guidance action checklist for employers, workers and their representatives. This tool is intended to compliment and not replace national occupational safety and health regulations and guidance, to help establish the practical details of a safe return to work. Read more: ILO press release. Download the Guidance Note [pdf]

Vulnerable workers

On March 30, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which develops and delivers policies and programs and advises the Australian Government on health, aged care and sport, recommended special provisions be applied to vulnerable people in the workplace.  This is what the AHPPC recommended to the Federal Cabinet (see the AHPPC statement):

Excluding healthcare settings where appropriate PPE and precautions are adhered to, the AHPPC considers that, given the transmission characteristics of the virus, the following settings are at higher risk of outbreaks of COVID-19:
  • Correctional and detention facilities
  • Group residential settings

AHPPC considers that, based on the limited current evidence, the following people are, or are likely to be, at higher risk of serious illness if they are infected with the virus: 

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and older with one or more chronic medical conditions
  • People 65 years and older with chronic medical conditions.5 Conditions included in the definition of ‘chronic medical conditions’ will be refined as more evidence emerges. The most current list can be accessed on the Department of Health website 
  • People 70 years and older
  • People with compromised immune systems (see Department of Health website)

AHPPC recommends that where vulnerable workers undertake essential work, a risk assessment must be undertaken.  Risk needs to be assessed and mitigated with consideration of the characteristics of the worker, the workplace and the work. This includes ensuring vulnerable people are redeployed to non-customer based roles where possible. Where risk cannot be appropriately mitigated, employers and employees should consider alternate arrangements to accommodate a workplace absence.

AHPPC recommends that special provisions apply to essential workers who are at higher risk of serious illness and, where the risk cannot be sufficiently mitigated, should not work in high risk setting.

This is what HSRs should be doing:

  1. discuss the AHPPC advice 
  2. undertake an audit of all work to determine what can be moved off-site, and that arrangements be made that everyone who can work remotely do so. This will reduce the risk of infection for all workers and is in fact what our political leaders are now recommending 
  3. for work that cannot be taken off-site, an audit of the workers doing this work to determine whether any are at serious risk according to the AHPPC advice
  4. on the basis of this audit, seek the redeployment of vulnerable workers to ensure they no longer work in a high risk setting

Masks

Victoria - Update February 24:

The conditions when masks/face coverings must be worn - they are no longer mandatory when outdoors (unless it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, for example in a queue).

  1. Everyone must wear a mask when indoors - this includes workers and members of the public. Masks can be removed when undertaking physical exercise (eg in a gym)
  2. Masks must also be worn in commercial passenger vehicles (eg taxis, Uber, etc) and on public transport. 

See our advice on COVID-19 and masks.  The COVID-19 vaccination program began on February 22. More information on the Victorian situation.

Working from home:

HSRs need to be involved with arrangements the employer puts in place for workers who will be working from home. The employer must:

  1. Ensure that the work is able to be completed remotely
  2. Ensure that arrangements are in place for these people regarding the physical environment and equipment. There are checklists available - for example this one.
  3. Also ensure that arrangements are in place to as much as possible safeguard the mental health of those working at home. Some suggestions:
    • regular phone calls at set times
    • team meetings using programs such as Zoom

See this page on Working from home for advice. This page also has links to more information. 

Advice for Employers

Remember under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act employers:

  1. have a legal duty of care to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees and others at the workplace. This includes providing and maintaining a work environment and systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, without risk to health and safety. This includes where workers are working from home. This duty also applies to 'persons conducting a business or undertaking' (PCBUs) under WHS legislation in other Australian states and territories.
  2. must provide information and training for employees regarding the potential health risks, and measures taken to reduce these risks
  3. must monitor the health of employees
  4. must consult with HSRs when identifying or assessing hazards or risks, and when making decisions on the measures to control these. See WorkSafe Victoria's consultation checklist.

All Victorian workplaces which are operating and/or are planning to have workers return on-site must have a COVIDSafe plan in place.

Update February 2021Due to the effective control of community transmission of the virus Victoria had been moving to a gradual return to work (More information). The 5-day lockdown introduced on February has now been lifted, but some restrictions remain in place. See this page for advice.

Simple ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace

The low-cost measures below will help prevent the spread of infections in the workplace, such as colds, flu and stomach bugs, and protect customers, contractors and employees. Employers should be organising for as many workers as possible to be working from home.

Employers should have implemented these measures and will need to have them in place for the foreseeable future: 

  • Ensure all employees are provided with information and training on what they need to do - for example maintaining a distance of 1.5-2m from others.
  • Make sure the workplaces are clean and hygienic
    • Surfaces (e.g. desks and tables) and objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards, machinery handles) need to be wiped with disinfectant regularly
      The current advice is: "Surface disinfection with 0.1% sodium hypochlorite or 62-71% ethanol significantly reduces coronavirus infectivity on surfaces within 1 minute of exposure time."
    • Workers should avoid hot-desking and sharing keyboards and mice. If they do need to share equipment, this should be wiped down with disposable disinfectant wipes

  • Promote regular and thorough hand-washing by employees, contractors and customers
    • Put sanitizing hand rub dispensers in prominent places around the workplace. Make sure these dispensers are regularly refilled
    • Display posters promoting hand-washing.  Hands need to be washed for at least 20 seconds.
    • Combine this with other communication measures to promote hand-washing
    • Make sure that employees, contractors and customers have access to places where they can wash their hands with soap and water

  • Promote good respiratory hygiene in the workplace
    • Display posters promoting respiratory hygiene. Combine this with other communication measures such as offering guidance from occupational health and safety officers, briefing at meetings and information on the intranet etc. 
    • Ensure that face masks (Ordinary surgical face masks rather than N95 face mask unless in medical workplaces) and/or paper tissues are available at your workplaces, for those who develop a runny nose or cough at work, along with closed bins for hygienically disposing of them
    • Why? Because good respiratory hygiene prevents the spread of COVID-19

  • Discontinue any overseas travel - all overseas travel is now banned, except in very limited circumstances. 

  • Brief employees, contractors and customers/clients: anyone with even a mild cough or low-grade fever (37.3 C or more) needs to stay at home. They should also stay home (or work from home) if they have had to take simple medications, such as paracetamol/acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin, which may mask symptoms of infection
    • Keep communicating and promoting the message that people need to stay at home even if they have just mild symptoms of COVID-19. Anyone who has been in close contact with a confirmed case must self-isolate for 14 days, and also contact the Coronavirus Hotline: 1800 675 398 
    • Display posters with this message in your workplaces.. 
    • Check elsewhere (such as WorkSafe, local public health authority or other partners) who may have developed campaign materials to promote this message
    • Make clear to employees that they will be able to count this time off as sick leave.

Travel advice

The advice from the Australian government is:

  • Overseas travel is banned until further notice - Australian citizens and residents are being allowed to return (and must go into hotel quarantine), and anyone wishing to leave must apply for permission to do so.
  • Anyone arriving from overseas must enter hotel isolation for 14 days. This must now be paid for by those returning to the country. 
  • As of December 9, all borders around Australia are open, however as was seen in January after an outbreak in Greater Sydney, and the northern beaches, border closures can be re-imposed with little notice.  It is very wise to check before travelling.  

At your workplace 

Employers need to:

  • All businesses in Victoria are now open, but restrictions on numbers remain. All businesses must have a COVIDSafe plan in place. See this page for more information: COVID 19 Victorian situation
  • Review infection control policies, procedures and practices to ensure they are effective and being followed
  • Ensure that all employees have been provided with adequate training and information on these procedures
  • Ensure you are monitoring employees' health
  • Develop a plan of what to do if someone becomes ill with suspected COVID-19 at one of your workplaces
    • The plan should cover putting the ill person in a room or area where they are isolated from others in the workplace, limiting the number of people who have contact with the sick person and contacting the local health authorities.
    • Consider how to identify persons who may be at risk, and support them, without inviting stigma and discrimination into the workplace. This could include persons who have recently travelled to an area reporting cases, or other personnel who have conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness (e.g. diabetes, heart and lung disease, older age).

  • Where possible implement teleworking/working from home across the organization. The Victorian government is now advising people to avoid going out unless necessary: this includes taking public transport. Teleworking/working from home will help the business keep operating while employees stay safe.  As of March 18, the advice from the Victorian government is still "If you can work from home, work from home."

  • Develop and implement a contingency and business continuity plan 
    • The plan should address how to keep the business running even if a significant number of employees, contractors and suppliers cannot come to the place of business - either due to local restrictions on travel or because they are ill.
    • Communicate to the employees and contractors about the plan and make sure they are aware of what they need to do – or not do – under the plan. Emphasize key points such as the importance of staying away from work even if they have only mild symptoms or have had to take simple medications (e.g. paracetamol, ibuprofen) which may mask the symptoms
    • Ensure the plan addresses the mental health and social consequences of a case of COVID-19 in the workplace and offer information and support.

Advice for Workers

Remember:

  1. Your employer has a general duty of care to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes a safe working environment and safe systems of work, and also applies if you are working from home.
  2. Your employer must provide you with information and training
  3. You have a duty under the Act too: to take reasonable care for your health and safety, that your acts or omissions do not adversely affect others, and to co-operate with actions your employer takes regarding controlling COVID-19 and other risks in the workplace.

What you should do:

  • Maintain good hygiene:
    • maintain a distance of at least 1.5 -2 metres from another person - if this is not possible due to the nature of your work, then you should be wearing a mask, particularly if you are working with people who may be infected
    • cover your mouth with a tissue or sneeze/cough into an elbow
    • dispose of tissues, paper towel, etc, into closed bins immediately after use
    • if at work, do not hot-desk or share keyboards and mice. If you do need to share equipment, this should be wiped down with disposable disinfectant wipes
  • If in Victoria: All workers must carry a mask at all times, and wear one when indoors, and if in commercial passenger vehicles and public transport.In very limited circumstances (medical), it may not be possible to do so even in these circumstances. See the VTHC advice on Wearing masks  
  • Stay at home if unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headaches and a slight running nose
  • If you believe you are able to do your work from home, see your HSR to raise this with the employer. If you do not have an HSR, then take the matter up yourself.
  • Contact the Coronavirus Hotline for advice if you are concerned you have been in contact with a confirmed case: 1800 675 398
  • Raise any concerns with your elected HSR and/or your union

Advice to all workplaces parties:

It is crucial to take action to minimise the risk of COVID-19. Simple precautions and planning can make a big difference. Action now will help protect your employees and your business.

More information on COVID-19

What is COVID-19 and how does it spread?

Given that there is a great deal of information available on what the disease is, how infectious it is and its symptoms, this will not be covered in detail here. We make the following points:

  • COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus.
  • When an infected person coughs or exhales they release droplets of infected fluid. Most of these droplets fall on nearby surfaces and objects. Infection can occur if someone touches contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. If they are standing within one meter of a person with COVID-19 they can catch it by breathing in droplets coughed out or exhaled by them. 
  • More recent and compelling evidence is that the virus also spreads via aerosols, making it even more contagious.
  • Most persons infected with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and recover. However, some go on to experience more serious illness and may require hospital care. People with weakened immune systems and people with conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease are also more vulnerable to serious illness.
  • Symptoms include:

    • fever
    • dry cough
    • tiredness
    • loss of sense of smell or taste
    • aches and pains
    • sneezing
    • sore throat
    • headaches
    • conjunctivitis
    • a rash on skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes
  • It seems it takes between 2 and 10 days before people who are infected show symptoms. A person may not be showing any signs of illness, hence the ability for the infection to spread. This is not unlike the common cold or flu, but it appears to be more infectious.
  • It now also appears that some people who have 'recovered' from COVID-19 suffer permanent damage to some organs, such as the lungs or heart.
  • Unlike influenzas, there is currently no vaccine and therefore the prevention of the spread of the virus can only be achieved by isolating cases and the practice of good respiratory and hand hygiene. Coronviruses can survive longer on surfaces than influenza virus.

A resource from the UK - COVID transmission and killer workplaces

This Hazards Campaign film explains why the coronavirus is so dangerous indoors, where aerosols can build up in the air. It notes COVID-19 risks can be higher in workplaces, where people spend long periods in an enclosed space in close proximity to others. The 27-minute film adds this is also why ventilation is so important and a critical factor that is barely mentioned in official guidance. The film, produced for the campaign by Reel News, and “explains what you can do to keep yourself and your workmates safe – using the latest information about Covid-19, extensive case studies of superspreader events and successful collective struggles by well-organised workplaces.” The film has many international experts, including some from Australia. It is an excellent resource for union training and awareness raising sessions.  Check out the new resource here: Covid transmission and killer workplaces, a Reel News/Hazards Campaign film, November 2020. 

Latest statistics

As of the latest update on February 24, 2021 there had been 112,636,741 worldwide infections (note: the numbers are updated continually). There have been 2,495,290 COVID-related deaths. While the numbers are still increasing, it now appears that the increases are diminishing as more countries vaccinate their populations.  (Source: Worldometer)

The numbers in Australia now increasing only marginally, with most new cases being those in those returning from overseas. It is interesting to see the numbers since March last year: 

  • March 18: 596 cases
  • April 5: 5788 cases
  • May 19: 7068 cases
  • July 7: 8,880 cases
  • August 3: 17,936 cases 
  • August 19: 23,23,898 cases
  • August 24: 24,916 cases
  • August 31: 25,746 cases
  • September 9: 26,374 cases
  • October 19: 27,391 cases
  • November 25: 27,847 cases
  • December 16: 28,045 cases
  • February 9, 2021: 28,857
  • February 24, 2021: 28,937

The new cases have been mostly those identified in people returning from overseas. There has been just one death since the December update: the total COVID-19 fatalities is 909. For more details on the situation in Australia, check this page or go to health.gov.au. For the Victorian situation, go to this page

Remember that each jurisdiction has different measures in place - so check your own state/territory. 

Travel overseas is still not permitted. Australia's borders essentially remain closed to foreigners. Australians and Australian residents arriving home from overseas continue to go into mandatory quarantine in hotels. 

For up to date information:

  • Victorian Department of Health and Human Services: About Coronavirus (COVID-19) - this is updated daily and has advice for the general public. 

How to stay informed:

Quiz:

https://ohsrepscovidquiz.netlify.com/story_html5.html