- Action Plan for HSRs
- Rights of HSRs
- Advice for Employers
- Advice for Workers
- More information on COVID-19
- How to stay informed
If you're concerned about COVID Safety at your workplace, let us know. www.covidsafeworkplace.org
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. On March 10, WHO declared the disease a pandemic.
Check out this website for a map of how the coronavirus COVID-19 is affecting countries and territories around the world: Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak Across the World
WHO and public health authorities around the world continue to take 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.
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.
Researchers spotted the Omicron variant in genome-sequencing data from Botswana in November 2021. The Omicron variant has now become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Australia, replacing the Delta strain.
Though Omicron appears less severe than previous variants with a reduced risk of severe disease. However, Omicron spreads significantly faster and can still lead to serious illness or death.
Workers are more likely to catch the virus at work making employers' legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of workers more important than ever. Staff shortages due to isolation put more pressure on workers to perform tasks outside of their job description or work unsafe hours, particularly in essential industries such as healthcare, retail, food transport and manufacturing.
Good ventilation, social distancing, adequate PPE and the ability to work from continue to be essential in slowing the Omicron spread.
If you suspect that your employer is shirking their health and safety obligations, contact your union!
COVID-19 has been, and continues to be, a serious threat to the health and safety of workers across the country. 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 only adds to community risk.
Under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act employers have the duty 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
While a number of vaccines have been developed, and the rate of vaccination in Australia has increased, we cannot rely solely on vaccinations and must continue to control the risk of infection at the source.
The need to have control measures in place remains.
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.
Many Australian workers are returning to their physical workplaces where controls such as ventilation, air purifiers, masks and physical distancing remain vitally important.
You may find our series of checklists helpful:
HSRs have a right to:
- get information from the employer - this includes if a worker has tested positive in your DWG
- be consulted when your employer is developing and implementing measures to control the risk of COVID-19 as well as return to work arrangements and measures. (See: Duty to Consult). 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
- get outside assistance such as contacting your union
- issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) if your employer fails to:
- consult with you when identifying, assessing or developing and implementing measures to control the risk of COVID-19 infection
- 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 you or your DWG are concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19, then raise the issue immediately with your employer. Do not wait for your employer to come to you.
Workplace Orders that required employers to have a COVID Safe plan are no longer in effect. However, this does not displace the duty employers have under s.21 of the OHS Act to provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, a workplace that is safe and without risks to health. This means that the controls typically contained in COVID Safe plans to minimise the spread of COVID should continue to be implemented notwithstanding there no longer being Department of Health orders.
- 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.
Many of the rules around mandatory wearing of masks have been relaxed. However, masks should still be worn in some situations: such as high risk healthcare settings, and when it is not possible to physically distance and if you're a close contact.
See our advice on masks here: COVID-19 and masks. While many restrictions have now been lifted, there are still some things in place. More information on restrictions, etc, see this page Victorian situation.
Working from home:
More and more workers are back at their 'physical' workplace, though many are still working from home, for at least part of the week. For many of us the necessary equipment is already in place at the home. HSRs should be consulted on arrangements employers puts in place and maintains for any workers who will be working from home for any part of their working week. 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.
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. Many employers and workplaces, such as schools, are now using Rapid antigen tests (RATs) as one tool in identifying employees who are potentially positive. Safe Work Australia has produced guidance for employers/PCBUs on the use of Rapid antigen testing.
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
- Display posters with appropriate messaging in your workplace
- Check elsewhere (such as WorkSafe, local public health authority or other partners) who may have developed campaign materials to promote COVID-Safe measures
- Make clear to employees that they'll able to count this time off as sick leave
- It is a Victorian government public health requirement that all 'authorised workers' be vaccinated.
For some workers, the requirement is now to not only have the two shots, but also the third, or 'booster' shot.
This applies to healthcare, aged care, disability, emergency services, correctional facility, quarantine accommodation and food processing and distribution workers (excluding retail). Workplaces must sight and record proof of vaccination. It will not apply to workers who have a valid medical exemption
- 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).
- 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.
- 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, and the appropriate PPE (for example, masks)
- 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.
- If you are an Authorised worker, in order to continue to work, you had to have your third dose (if eligible) by 12 February 2022, although this was extended for some workers.
What you should do:
- Get fully vaccinated as soon as possible
- 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 is no longer mandatory in most indoor locations - but is still required in some health care settings. It is still advised when it is not possible to physically distance however. 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
- 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.
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 Delta variant was more contagious, and the Omicron is even more infectious than the Delta!
- the virus primarily spreads via aerosols. 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:
- dry cough
- loss of sense of smell or taste
- aches and pains
- sore throat
- 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 is much 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, while others suffer from 'Long COVID' - see below
- there are now several vaccines available. It is extremely important to get fully vaccinated. 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. Those most at risk, the immunocompromised, for example, are receiving a fourth shot.
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.
The Omicron Variants
This variant was identified and named in November 2021. It has now been proven that it is even more contagious than the Delta variant (4.5 times more contagious), but may not be as severe. Because of its extreme infectiousness, however, the numbers of active cases are much higher than they have ever been. To ensure that there is a high level of protection it is necessary to get fully vaccinated.
‘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. Currently there is very little known on long COVID and Omicron.
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.
- From the ACTU Centre for Health and Safety: the COVID-Aware fact-sheet site. From here workers can download a COVID-Aware kit. The fact sheets have been recently updated.
- 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.
- From WorkSafe Victoria:
- SafeWork Australia has a page information on COVID-19 for workplaces with a number of subsections, including:
- 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
- complements and updates interim guidance from the WHO issued on August 25, 2020 on “COVID-19 management in hotels and other entities of the accommodation sector”
- takes into account the specific health risks posed by the aerosol transmission (spread of respiratory particles) of COVID-19
- includes trade unions’ demands for workers on income and job protection2022 IUF Guide to COVID-19 Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in hotels (in English, French & Spanish) is a resource which is the product of discussions and consultations with leading industrial hygienists, occupational health experts and specialists from the WHO and ILO. The IUF Guide brings together evidence-based knowledge about the transmission of COVID-19 with international safety and health standards and:
Last updated 15 December 2022