OHS obligations in the workplace amidst COVID-19
By Paul Stathis, Chief Executive Officer, BICSI South Pacific
Monday, 01 June, 2020
At the time of writing, the Australian federal and state/territory governments had just eased their social-distancing restrictions, bringing a fresh sense of optimism to our communities.
While the restrictions were relatively minor, these were seen as positive steps to returning to normality, especially in regard to the workplace and our economy, both of which have been severely impacted by COVID-19.
The ICT industry in which BICSI actively participates has likewise been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — this is despite the fact that ICT is an essential service with millions of people required to work from home and connect via the internet. Many of our members have been called upon to do extraordinary things to ensure their clients and employers can function as close to ‘business as usual’ as possible. These include establishing thousands of VPNs for remote workers; fast-tracking the deployment of cabling and Wi-Fi networks; urgently remediating faulty and sub-standard ICT networks; and fulfilling inordinately large requests for things like UPSs, wireless access points, cabling, Ethernet switches and records management software. BICSI applauds its fellow ICT workers who have risen to the challenge of helping so many people and businesses stay connected and keep working as close to business as usual as possible.
While no-one can foresee the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many contemplate 2020 as a full year of restrictions, either imposed by government, employers or individually on themselves. Some medical experts warn that returning to ‘normal’ too soon will cause a second and more dangerous COVID-19 wave, which would claim many more lives and see the economy plunge further still. So BICSI advocates caution in the workplace, even as the current restrictions are eased, and recommends businesses adopt the SafeWork Australia COVID-19 safety guidelines in the workplace for both employers and employees.
Published late April 2020, SafeWork Australia listed a number of guidelines to help employers, managers and business owners understand their responsibilities in operating a ‘COVID-19 safe’ work environment, along with guidelines for workers to act safely in their workplace while minimising contracting or spreading COVID-19.
Below is an extract from some of the guidelines that can assist all working in the ICT industry to work safely now and into the near future as restrictions are removed. To many, they can seem just ‘common sense’, but compiled together, they form an excellent framework for being proactive in the workplace to reduce the risks associated with COVID-19 and assist us get back to normal as soon as possible.
The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require employers to take care of the health, safety and welfare of workers, including staff, contractors and volunteers, and others (clients, customers, visitors) at their workplace. This includes:
- providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risk to health and safety;
- providing adequate and accessible facilities for the welfare of workers to carry out their work; and
- monitoring the health of workers and the conditions of the workplace for the purpose of preventing illness or injury.
Employers’ duty to ensure the health and safety of their workers includes eliminating the risk of exposure to COVID-19 where reasonably practicable. If employers aren’t able to eliminate that risk, they must minimise the risk, as far as is reasonably practicable, by, for example:
- implementing working-from-home arrangements;
- requiring workers to practise physical distancing;
- requiring workers to practise good hygiene (eg, through workplace policies and ensuring access to adequate and well-stocked hygiene facilities);
- requiring workers to stay home when sick; and
- cleaning the workplace regularly and thoroughly.
Employers must ensure the work of their business or undertaking doesn’t put the health and safety of other persons (such as customers, clients and visitors) at risk of contracting COVID-19, by protecting others by, for example:
- requiring them to practise physical distancing, including through contactless deliveries and payments;
- requiring them to practise good hygiene: and
- requiring others to stay away from the workplace, unless essential, eg, family, friends, visitors.
Employers must also maintain their workplace to ensure the work environment doesn’t put workers and others at risk of contracting COVID-19 by, for example:
- cleaning the workplace regularly and thoroughly;
- restructuring the layout of the workplace to allow for physical distancing; and
- limiting the number of people in the workplace at any given time.
Employers must also provide adequate facilities in their workplace to protect workers from contracting COVID-19 with:
- washroom facilities including adequate supply of soap, water and paper towel, or hand sanitiser where it’s not possible for workers to wash their hands;
- staff rooms that are regularly cleaned and allow for physical distancing; and
- regular breaks to use these facilities, particularly to allow workers to wash their hands.
Employers must provide their workers with any information or training that is necessary to protect them from the risk of COVID-19 exposure arising from their work. This may include:
- providing guidance on how to properly wash hands;
- training workers in how to fit and use any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE);
- training workers to exercise adequate cleaning practices throughout the day;
- providing workers with instructions on how to set up a safe home workplace; and
- providing workers with instructions on staying home from work if sick.
Employers must also consult with workers on health and safety matters relating to COVID-19. When consulting, employers must give workers the opportunity to express their views and raise health and safety concerns. Employers must take workers’ views into account and advise workers of the outcome of consultation.
Consult with workers:
- when conducting a risk assessment;
- when making decisions on which control measures to use to manage the risk of COVID-19 exposure (eg, when introducing working-from-home arrangements or restricting the workplace to allow for physical distancing);
- when making decisions about the adequacy of the workplace facilities to allow for control measures such as physical distancing and hygiene;
- when proposing other changes that may affect the health and safety of workers; and
- when changing any procedures that have an impact on the health and safety of workers.
Employers must allow workers to express their views and raise health and safety issues that may arise directly or indirectly because of COVID-19. Employers must take the views of workers into account when making decisions and advise workers of decisions. Consultation doesn’t require consensus or agreement, but employers must allow workers to be part of the decision-making process. If workers are represented by health and safety representatives (HSRs), they must be included in the consultation process.
Workers must take reasonable care of themselves and not do anything that would affect the health and safety of others at work (eg, coming to work when unwell). They must follow any reasonable health and safety instructions from their employer.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s important that workers:
- work safely and observe any new requirements for physical distancing (even if it means performing tasks in a different way to what they’re used to);
- follow instructions (eg, about how to wash hands thoroughly);
- ask if not sure how to safely perform the work;
- use PPE in the way they were trained and instructed to use it; and
- report unsafe or unhealthy situations (eg, lack of soap in the bathroom) to supervisor or to a HSR.
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