On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic and, since that time, the public health emergency has continued to escalate in countries across the world, including in Australia. The pandemic has resulted in numerous issues for employers and employees to navigate, in particular in relation to workplace health and safety considerations.
Employers Duty of Care
Employers will be aware that they have a primary duty to their employees to ensure (so far as reasonably practicable) the health and safety of their employees. In this respect, employers must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees, and employers must also provide adequate facilities for workers in carrying out their work.
This duty of care owed by employers to their employees means that employers are required to:
- actively identify risks in the workplace and
- where possible take appropriate steps to either eliminate or minimise those risks.
In respect of the COVID-19 outbreak, employers should be aware of the latest physical distancing requirements issued by the Australian government and should have in place measures which implement such physical distancing – that is, effectively keeping everyone at the workplace physically 1.5 metres away from each other – which will allow employees to continue to work whilst abiding by physical distancing requirements.
In addition, employers should also ensure that they are maintaining the cleanliness of the workplace and are providing their employees with adequate facilities and products to allow employees to maintain good hygiene practices (for example, providing hand-wash stations with soap, ensuring hand sanitiser is available to employees and providing disinfectant wipes for employees to wipe down any surfaces they come into contact within their workplace). Further, it is also important that employers take steps to ensure that any frequently touched areas and surfaces in common areas (such as doorknobs, light switches, countertops, elevator buttons, EFTPOS machines and handrails) are cleaned several times a day so that both employees and customers are protected as far as possible from risks of infection.
Other measures that employers should consider and encourage their employees to take can include cancelling or rescheduling non-essential meetings or holding meetings via video or telephone conferencing, urging employees to avoid physical contact with others such as handshaking), encouraging employees to eat lunch at their desks or outside rather than in a common lunchroom, opening windows for ventilation, directing employees to self-isolate at home if they are feeling unwell, and educating employees by providing updated information regarding COVID-19 that is relevant to their workplace and details about any support the employer has available to the employees should they require it.
Watch for signs of stress
During these challenging and rapidly evolving times, employers should also recognise the potential for psychological stress that employees can be suffering. Whilst directives to socially isolate and maintain physical distance are targeted at slowing the spread of the virus and “flattening the curve”, these steps come with their own hazards and risks. Social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness which in turn can trigger distress, anxiety and even depression. In addition, employees who are also working parents are trying to balance their responsibilities to their employer with their parental responsibilities which are now more demanding than ever. In some instances, parents have been faced with school closures, whilst others have been encouraged to keep their children at home from school, and as a result, parents are now shouldering the responsibility for homeschooling and managing their children’s education.
Measures we can take
It is therefore important that employers consider ways in which they can look after the mental wellbeing of their employees. To manage feelings of isolation and loneliness, this could include conducting daily check-ins for employees who are working remotely or self-isolating, implementing technological strategies to ensure employees remain virtually connected (apps such as Slack and Zoom can be effective tools in this respect) and providing and encouraging employees to seek the support of GPS, psychologists or other mental health professionals where needed. To assist working parents, employers should ensure they set realistic expectations and proactively encourage an open dialogue with employees to discuss flexible working practices such as staggering shift times, altering conventional work hours, or stretching work hours across multiple days.
These times of uncertainty can present challenging circumstances for both employers and employers and the ever evolving nature of this public health emergency means that employers need to be on the front foot when addressing their legal and operational issues that are arising from COVID-19. The team at Aspect Legal is well placed to provide advice to clients in relation to workplace health and safety considerations resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak. Please do not hesitate to contact us for assistance if you are unsure about your legal workplace health and safety obligations.
Don’t hesitate to contact our legal team if you have any questions or any other legal questions that are arising. Our legal team is highly experienced in all of these areas, and are ready to help.
Other relevant articles:
- Coronavirus: Implications on commercial contracts and force majeure clauses
- COVID19 and Hurdles to Stand Downs
- Coronavirus Employment Law Update – Leave and Stand Downs – Aspect Legal
- Coronavirus: Working From Home Considerations
Relevant Podcast Episode:
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