Coronavirus Disease

COVID-19

Latest update November 30, 2021  

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

Introduction

Currently Australia is emerging from what has been our third wave with the far more infectious Delta variant. With vaccination rates now high in much of the country, the number of new infections is reducing, as are the relative numbers of hospitalisations and deaths. Despite these high vaccination levels, the number of new infections each day in Victoria continues to hover around the thousand mark. On Tuesday November 30, 918 new cases were announced. The state has now reached over 90 per cent over the age of 12 double vaccinated, and so while there are still a few conditions in place, the state has come out of lockdown. For more information go to this page: COVID 19 Victorian situation

Update November 30

Over the past week a new variant of concern, named Omicron by WHO, has begun to spread around the world, with a number of cases now identified in Australia. 

Researchers spotted the variant in genome-sequencing data from Botswana. The Omicron variant has a large number of mutations compared with previous variants, more than 30 of which are in the spike protein – the 'key' used by the virus to enter the body’s cells. The large number of mutations has raised concerns that the antibodies from previous infections or vaccination may no longer be well matched. Experts are saying, however, that it is likely that some residual immunity, for example from T-cells, will remain.

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 221 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.  

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, and continues to be, 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 the rate of vaccination has increased in Australia, we are still well behind most OECD countries. In any case, we cannot rely on vaccinations and will need to continue to control the risk of infection at the source. 

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 have not been 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 November 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 no longer in lockdown - but there are still a number of restrictions in place, such as wearing masks indoors. 

All workplaces 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 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;
  • check the requirements for the workforce to be vaccinated, and ensure your employer has consulted with all HSRs regarding how they will monitor who has received the vaccination;
  • 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); issues around vaccinations, and so on.

Guidance on returning to work:

  • from SafeWork Australia - on COVID-19 Information for workplaces  This includes information for workplaces about work health and safety for COVID-19.

  • 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]

Masks

Victoria - Update November, 2021:

Despite the lockdown ending, it is still a requirement for masks to be worn on pubic transport and in some other settings, and when it is not possible to physically isolate. See our advice on masks here: COVID-19 and masks. More information on restrictions, etc, see this page Victorian situation. With the arrival of the Omicron variant, many are choosing to wear masks at all times when indoors.

Working from home:

There are still workers working from home - although many are now returning to work. What is becoming apparent is that many companies are allowing their employees to work from home for at least part of the week. As we have all had this experience in last year's long lockdown, the necessary equipment has been in place at the home. HSRs need to be involved with arrangements the employer puts in place and maintains for any workers who will be working from home for any part of their working week. 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 November 2021: As noted above, there are still workers are working from home and may continue to do so for part of their working week. See this page for advice.

Ways to minimise the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace

The low-cost measures below will help limit the spread of infections in the workplace, such as colds, flu and stomach bugs, and protect customers, contractors and employees. These should now be permanent measures and will assist in reducing other infectious diseases such as influenza and the common cold. 

Employers should have implemented these measures and will need to have them in place: 

  • Ensure all employees are provided with information and training on what they need to do - for example maintaining a distance of at least 1.5-2m from others (or more if possible as we now know that coronavirus is spread through aerosols).

  • Ensure workplaces are properly ventilated - this has become increasingly important as we learn more about how the virus spreads. The ACTU has released a factsheet about workplace ventilation and COVID-19, developed with the assistance of infectious diseases experts.  Knowledge on the details of exactly how COVID-19 is spread between individuals has continued to improve and workplaces need to take action to prevent further transmission. There is now much clearer evidence that to stop the spread of the virus, fresh air and good ventilation – especially in workplaces – are essential.  Read more: Ventilation on this site; ACTU advice on Ventilation 

  • 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

  • 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 (latest update November, 2021)

The advice from the Australian government is:

  • As of November 1, fully vaccinated Australians no longer need to ask permission to leave the country, but those who are unvaccinated still require an exemption. 
  • The rules are changing for those arriving from overseas: some who are fully vaccinated will be able to self-isolate at home, with conditions. In some jurisdictions a trial of 'at home' isolation is currently underway. However, this has not been fully rolled out across Australia. 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 - though restrictions have recently been relaxed in most jurisdictions. There are some states which still have a number of requirements in place (for example, a negative test prior to travel). It is strongly advised that before travelling anywhere in Australia, you check.   

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
  • There is now a Victorian government public health requirement that all 'authorised workers' be vaccinated. By October 22, all authorised workers must have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine (see: Information for industry and workers required to be vaccinated)
  • 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.
  4. If you are an Authorised worker, in order to continue to work, you will need to have had at least the first dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines by October 22. (see: Information for industry and workers required to be vaccinated)

What you should do:

  • Get vaccinated as soon as possible. Those who received their second vaccine six months before now need to organise a booster vaccine. 
  • Maintain good hygiene:
    • maintain a distance of at least 2 metres from another person (even though official advice is still 1.5m) - 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 (but check your own jurisdiction): A mask must be worn when on public transport. See the VTHC advice on Wearing masks.  NSW is currently no longer in lockdown, but there are still some rules in place. 
  • If you are an essential worker, stay at home if unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headaches and a slight running nose
  • 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. Learn more about the Delta variant here
  • 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.  See: Ventilation on this site, and the ACTU guidance: Ventilation
  • 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 
    • diarrhoea 
  • 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 is much 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. Those who have received both doses of the vaccine will need to arrange to receive the third, booster, shot at about six months after their second dose to ensure immunity does not wane. 

The Delta variant

Delta was recognised as a SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern in May 2021 and has proved extremely difficult to control in unvaccinated populations. Delta has managed to out-compete other variants, including Alpha. Variants are classified as "of concern" because they're either more contagious than the original, cause more hospitalisations and deaths, or are better at evading vaccines and therapies. Or all of the above.

So how does Delta fare on these measures? And what have we learnt since Delta was first listed as a variant of concern? Read about the latest science in this ABC feature.

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

As at November 30, 2021 there had been 262,248,847 worldwide infections. There have now been 5,222,761 COVID-related deaths worldwide. (Source: Worldometer. Note: the numbers are updated continually)

While many countries are now seeing fewer infections and fewer deaths, no doubt due to high vaccinations levels, other countries, such as Russia, are still battling high numbers. 

The numbers in Australia are still increasing as we come out of our third wave. These are the number of infections in Australia since March last year(note these are the total number of cases)

Case numbers 2020

  • March 18: 596 
  • April 5: 5788 
  • August 3: 17,936  
  • December 16: 28,045 

Case numbers  2021

  • June 30: 30,554 
  • August 30: 52,624 
  • September 22: 90,391
  • October 6: 117,826
  • October 26: 162,026
  • November 17: 191,623
  • November 24: 200,651
  • November 30: 209,145

As at November 24, the total number of COVID-19 fatalities in Australia was 1,997 - unfortunately, most of these in Victoria For more details on the situation in Australia, check Worldmeter, COVID19data.com or go to health.gov.au. For the Victorian situation, go to this page

Remember that each jurisdiction may still have different measures and restrictions in place - so check your own state/territory. 

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