Latest update April 6, 2020
The following is occupational health and safety advice is based on information from the World Health Organization, the ACTU and other sources, amended to be suitable for HSRs. For advice concerning pay and/or sick leave entitlements, contact your union.
NOTE: this material is DRAFT and will be updated and amended regularly.
During times like this, many of us may feel anxious, and this is natural, given that we are being bombarded with news and information about the COVID-19 pandemic. The international organisation Médecins Sans Frontieres has provided some simple tips for coping with stress during the pandemic: Taking care of your mental health during COVID-19 - check it out. It will make you feel better.
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 208 countries and territories and 2 international conveyances around the world - this number increases daily. 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.
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. In other words, COVID-19 spreads in a similar way to flu.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As of midnight April 5, 2020 there had been 1,269,313 coronavirus cases worldwide. Of these, 69,346 people have died, and 261,307 have recovered. (Source: Worldometer)
The numbers in Australia are unfortunately and inevitably growing, but over the past three days the rate of infection has reduced:
- March 18: 596 cases
- March 21: 1072 cases
- March 25: 2317 cases
- March 29: 3969 cases
- March 30: 4148 cases
- March 31: 4514 cases
- April 1: 4707 cases
- April 5: 5697 cases
To date, there have been 37 deaths. Note that 97 per cent of active cases are 'mild': only 3 per cent are 'serious or critical'. The two states with the greatest number remain in NSW and Victoria. With much stricter social distancing laws now in place, as well as a ban on international visitors, the curve appears to be flattening out. For more details on the situation in Australia, check this page or go to health.gov.au.
Governments around Australia have now implemented a number of measures. On March 16, the Victorian government declared a state of emergency.
Federal and State governments have introduced a number of risk mitigation measures:
- Public gatherings are now restricted to two people, and so have in effect been banned. However five people are allowed at weddings, and 10 at funerals.
- People who are over 70, those with chronic illness over 60 and Indigenous people over 50 are strongly advised to stay home.
- Restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs, indoor sports facilities, religious gatherings have been closed
- Hospitality businesses may still operate take away and delivery
- Festivals, conferences, concerts and many other events have been cancelled.
- More public areas, such as public playgrounds, outside gyms and skateparks are closed from March 30, and group boot camps are no longer allowed
- In Victoria, the school holidays have been brought forward a few days with the school term ending on Monday March 23. The teaching staff were to prepare for the eventuality that the next term may not be 'at school'.
- a moratorium on evictions from rental properties for the next six months on the basis of 'financial stress'
The advice from the federal government is now that no-one travel to any overseas country. The government has also closed Australia's borders to foreigners. Australians arriving home from overseas must now go into mandatory quarantine in hotels as of March 29.
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.
Action Plan for HSRs
COVID-19 is a genuine 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 now find themselves without income if they don't work, is potentially putting 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:
- Identify hazards
- Assess risks
- Control risks
- Review controls
With no vaccine available for COVID-19, the most effective form of control is to identify potential carriers of the virus and support them through self-isolation. This reduces the exposure to others.
As noted above, where possible workers are now working from home - this is now what should be happening. 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.
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):
- 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 now be doing:
- discuss the AHPPC advice
- 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
- 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
- on the basis of this audit, seek the redeployment of vulnerable workers to ensure they no longer work in a high risk setting
Rights of HSRs
HSRs have a right to:
- get information from the employer
- be consulted when your employer is developing and implementing measures to control the risk of COVID-19 (See: Duty to Consult)
- get outside assistance such as contacting your union
- issuing a provisional improvement notice if your employer fails to take effective measures to control the risk of COVID-19 infection or fails to consult
- where necessary, issue a Cease Work
If still working at the workplace:
There are going to be 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
- potentially: 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.
Certain preventative and low-cost measures can and should be introduced immediately and in all workplaces. And don't forget that before introducing measures or developing 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, 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
- 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. 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).
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:
- Ensure that the work is able to be completed remotely
- Ensure that arrangements are in place for these people regarding the physical environment and equipment. There are checklists available - for example this one.
- 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:
- 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.
- must provide information and training for employees regarding the potential health risks, and measures taken to reduce these risks
- must monitor the health of employees
- must consult with HSRs when identifying or assessing hazards or risks, and when making decisions on the measures to control these.
Where possible, workers who are able to should now be working from home. 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 this stage all employers should be organising for as many workers as possible to be working from home.
Employers should have implemented these measures already.
- 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
- Surfaces (e.g. desks and tables) and objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards, machinery handles) need to be wiped with disinfectant regularly
- 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) 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.
The advice from the Australian government is:
- Overseas travel is banned until further notice - however there may be cases where this cannot be avoided.
- As of midnight March 15th, anyone arriving from overseas must self-isolate for 14 days. This means not attending work, any public place and basically be in self-quarantine at home.
- When someone returns from traveling:
- Again: as of midnight March 15th, anyone arriving from overseas must self-isolate for 14 days.
- Employees who have returned from overseas before March 14 need to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day. If someone develops symptoms they need to call the Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398 for advice.
- If they develop even a mild cough or low grade fever (i.e. a temperature of 37.3 C or more) they need to stay at home and self-isolate. This means avoiding close contact (one meter or nearer) with other people, including family members. They should also telephone their healthcare provider or the local public health department, giving them details of their recent travel and symptoms.
At your workplace now
Employers need to:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Your employer must provide you with information and training
- 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
- 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
- Stay at home if unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headaches and 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.
- Stay at home if you have returned from overseas after March 15
- 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.
How to stay informed:
- From the ACTU Centre for Health and Safety a COVID-19 resource page. This page will be regularly updated to provide unions, HSRs and workers information on how they can protect their workplaces from COVID-19. The ACTU's current alert can be downloaded from this page.
- From the UK's TUC: COVID-19 Coronavirus - Guidance for Unions. The guide includes information on workplace hygiene, personal protective equipment and on transmission of the coronavirus.
- Contact the Coronavirus Hotline: 1800 675 398 for advice
- From WorkSafe Victoria:
- SafeWork Australia has a page information on COVID-19 in the workplace with a number of subsections, including:
- regularly updated: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advice for Employers
- Businesses must have measures in place to protect workers at risk from coronavirus Media release
- Coronavirus information from Comcare
- From the World Health Organisation (WHO)
- The latest information on where COVID-19 is spreading
- Latest outbreak news
- Resources for protection of health workers and emergency responders
- Advice and information for various groups
- Information from Victoria's Health Department (DHHS) on the Coronavirus
- ILO: COVID-19 and the world of work