Coronavirus Disease

COVID-19

Latest update August 4, 2021  

If you're concerned about COVID Safety at your workplace, let us know. www.covidsafeworkplace.org

Introduction

Currently Australia has a very low level of community infection in comparison to many other countries - however the situation is volatile, particularly as returning travellers are now being diagnosed with the more infectious variants. However, with outbreaks of the far more infectious Delta variant, there is still a high level of concern. This has meant that states have had to take quick action to control potential outbreaks. Currently there is such a situation in NSW with the total number of community infections now at almost 800 and two fatalities in the past week. Victoria is now coming out of the restrictions imposed a few weeks ago. Until such time as Australia has a much higher level of the population fully vaccinated, we cannot relax. 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 220 countries and territories 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 July 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.

Victoria is currently in a Stage 4 lockdown set to end at midnight Tuesday July 27 - it looks like the restrictions will be eased, but there are going to be limits on the numbers of workers in workplaces and in venues - with space requirements for each person likely to be 4 square metres.  

All workplaces which are operating still need to 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, 2020 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 August, 2021:

Due to a number of Delta variant COVID cases being identified, Victoria had been back into lockdown, but restrictions eased last week. There are still a number of restrictions in place - for example, masks are mandated to be worn when leaving the home; and there are caps on the numbers of people at the workplace and in venues. See our advice on COVID-19 and masks. More information on restrictions, etc, see this page Victorian situation.

Working from home:

With the current restrictions, there are again large number of workers working from home. As we have all had this experience in last year's long lockdown, hopefully the necessary equipment can be put in place quickly. 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 August 2021: As noted above, many workers are again working from home, with a gradual return-to-work planned (More information). 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. At the moment (July 2021) the number/percentage of Victorian workers allowed to return to work is increasing - currently it is at 75 per cent. 

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 at ;east 1.5-2m from others.

  • Promote good respiratory hygiene in the workplace
    • installing clear screens between employees and members of the public where possible (eg at registers, serving counters and windows)
    • 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
    • Ensure physical distancing is maintained
    • Why? Because it is now been proven that the COVID-19 virus is spread most easily by aerosols and good respiratory hygiene prevents the spread of COVID-19

  • 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 per cent 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

  • Ensure workplaces are properly ventilated

  • 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

  • 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 (Update July 2021)

The advice from the Australian government is:

  • Most overseas travel is banned until further notice unless an exemption is sought and granted. 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. The latest advice from the Federal government is that it is unlikely that our borders will reopen until mid-2022.
  • Anyone arriving from overseas must enter hotel isolation for 14 days. This must now be paid for by those returning to the country. 
  • Australia/New Zealand 'travel bubble': Due to the Delta variant outbreak, however, the travel bubble has been suspended by the NZ government for an indefinite period. Quarantine free travel between Australia and New Zealand commenced at 21:59 AEST on 18 April 2021.  Under the agreement, travellers who have been in either Australia or New Zealand for 14 days can travel by air between Australia and New Zealand quarantine free, without the need to apply for a travel exemption. Note: This changes quickly with travel being suspended between NZ and some states at various times, depending on whether there are cases/outbreaks in those states. For more detailed information, go to this Australian government Department of Home Affairs webpage.  
  • Borders within Australia are closed when an outbreak occurs in any state or territory, and this can happen suddenly (for example the current situation in NSW  and Queensland). It is strongly advised that before travelling anywhere in Australia, you check current restrictions.  

At your workplace 

Employers need to:

  • All businesses must have a COVIDSafe plan in place, including mandatory use of the Vic government QR code. 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).
    • the law requires employers to notify WorkSafe and the DHHS immediately they become aware of a positive COVID case at the workplace.
  • 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, and the appropriate PPE (for example, masks)
  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:

  • Get vaccinated as soon as possible
  • 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: A mask must be worn at all times when leaving the home. See the VTHC advice on Wearing masks  
  • If you are an essential worker, 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. The current Delta variant has been shown to be even more infectious. 
  • Initial advice was based on infection via droplet: 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. 
  • NOTE: More recent and compelling evidence is that the virus primarily spreads via aerosols, making it more contagious. This explains how people have caught the virus in hotel quarantine when doors have opened into corridors. 
  • 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 has now been proven that the 'Indian' variants of the virus (now called 'delta' and 'kappa' variants) are more contagious and that an infected person begins to have symptoms earlier. There is also new information emerging on the symptoms, period of infectiousness and more with the variants.  
  • 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, while others suffer from 'Long COVID' - see below
  • there are now several vaccines available and Australia is well into the 'roll out' of these vaccines - though still woefully behind countries such as the UK, the USA and many European countries. Workers in industries where they are at higher risk should have been vaccinated already - although it has become apparent that many workers classified as 1a (eg those in the Aged care sector) have not been vaccinated. Although there has been confusion regarding who is eligible for which vaccine - it is important to get vaccinated, and the VTHC urges all workers to do so as soon as possible. 
  • Ensuring vaccination as well as taking all other measures to prevent the spread of the virus is critical. 

Long COVID

‘Long COVID’ is a term that is used if after four weeks your symptoms continue and prevent you from doing normal activities. Research studies estimate that one in five people has symptoms after five weeks, and 1 in 10 has symptoms for 12 weeks or longer after acute COVID-19. A policy brief on long COVID [pdf] was published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February 2021 and further sets out the symptoms, prevalence and management of the condition.

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

On August 4, 2021 the world hit a new milestone: over 200 million cases of the coronavirus. There had been 200,235,188 worldwide infections (note: the numbers are updated continually). The number of deaths is now 4,258,450 COVID-related deaths worldwide. The weekly trend in new infections over the past week has increased to +13 per cent, and the trend in the deaths has increased to +12 per cent. (Source: Worldometer). 

The numbers in Australia are also still increasing, though by nothing like those in some other countries. These are the number of infections in Australia since March last year - note these are the total number of cases

2020

  • March 18: 596 cases
  • April 5: 5788 cases
  • May 19: 7068 cases
  • July 7: 8,880 cases
  • August 3: 17,936 cases 
  • September 9: 26,374 cases
  • October 19: 27,391 cases
  • November 25: 27,847 cases
  • December 16: 28,045 cases

2021

  • February 24: 28,937 cases
  • May 19: 29,983 cases
  • June 30: 30,554 cases
  • July 14: 31,429 cases 
  • July 19: 32,266 cases
  • July 28: 33,266 cases
  • August 3: 34,836

The main increase continues to be NSW, where Greater Sydney is currently in week six of a lockdown, extended to the end of August.  However, the lockdown restrictions are not the same for all local government areas.

Sadly, there have been further deaths in NSW in the past week, bringing the total to 17 fatalities in this outbreak: the total number of COVID-19 fatalities in Australia is now 927. One of the deaths this week was that of a 20 year-old male. 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