Controlling COVID-19 risks as restrictions change
The information below provides detailed guidance for employers on how to control risks associated with exposure to COVID-19. Employers may not need to apply all of the controls listed in this guidance to meet their obligations under the OHS Act. Employers need to assess the level of risk that may arise within their workplace and determine the appropriate control measures to apply, depending on the circumstances, and subject to the Victorian Pandemic Orders.
Restrictions apply across Victoria
Depending on your industry your workplace may:
- be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations
- be subject to COVID-19 vaccination requirements
It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan. COVIDSafe plans should be reviewed and updated regularly.
COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with changes for your industry.
How are my occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations impacted by the restrictions?
There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health.
Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However, having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with the Victorian Pandemic Orders does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.
You must follow any Pandemic Orders that apply to how your business must operate, and ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.
Face masks are an important measure to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community. The risk of transmission is highest where people are close to each other, and in enclosed spaces.
Under Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health, it is mandatory to wear a face mask in certain circumstances.
These circumstances are regularly updated based on the current risk of transmission of COVID-19 in Victoria and in line with public health advice.
For the latest advice about face masks, go to the Coronavirus Victoria website.
Employers must identify whether there is a risk to the health of their employees from exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace. Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must eliminate the risk so far as is reasonably practicable and when elimination is not possible, reduce the risk so far as reasonably practicable. The controls an employer may use will vary depending on the situation and may include the use of face masks even where they are not mandated.
Identifying and controlling risks
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers must provide and maintain, so far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, by implementing suitable control measures to eliminate or reduce risks to health and safety.
This can be achieved by applying the hierarchy of controls. Control measures that can reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in a workplace include:
- allowing employees to work from home where it is reasonably practicable
- maintaining adequate ventilation using natural or mechanical ventilation, or a combination of the two
- maintaining a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from other persons where possible
- wearing a face mask indoors as required, or when you can't physically distance and in crowded environments
- maintaining regular cleaning and disinfection of the workplace
- practicing good hygiene by regularly washing your hands or using hand sanitiser and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or your elbow
- having a COVIDsafe plan which is regularly reviewed and updated in consultation with staff
- ensuring employees are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations, unless exceptions apply
Consultation with employees and HSRs
Employers must consult, so far as is reasonably practicable, with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, on matters related to health and safety. This includes consulting on how face masks are implemented within the workplace.
Consultation with individual employees may be required to identify whether wearing a face mask is appropriate for them, taking into account the lawful exceptions – for example, employees who experience problems with breathing, a serious condition of the face, a disability or a mental health condition.
Types of face masks
When a face mask is required to be worn, you must wear a fitted face mask that covers the nose and mouth.
A face mask is always recommended, however a fitted snood or fitted gaiter is allowed. Fitted means the snood or gaiter can extend in a fitted form to snugly fit over and cover your nose and mouth.
Loose fitting face coverings such as bandanas or scarves, or face shields worn without a face mask, are not acceptable.
Using face masks in workplaces
Face masks help to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly indoors where physical distancing is difficult. Employees should be supported to continue to wear a face mask at work, to protect themselves and others, including vulnerable employees.
A face mask does not need to be worn at work when a risk assessment determines that wearing one would create a health and safety risk.
In some industries, specific types of face masks are required. Where the work or task requires the use of specific types of face masks in the workplace, these must be provided by the employer.
Employees have a duty to cooperate with their employer's actions to comply with their duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.
Where an employee seeks to provide and use their own face mask at work, an employer must ensure all parties are meeting their obligations under the OHS Act. For example, by undertaking a risk assessment to ensure that the face mask is safe and suitable for the workplace and work activities being performed, providing policies and procedures in relation to the use of face masks in the workplace and providing information, instruction and training in the safe use of face masks within the workplace.
Employees may already wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to control risks associated with their work. Where RPE is worn at the workplace, the employer must conduct a risk assessment to ensure the level of RPE provided controls the risks associated with their work, including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Where RPE with exhalation valves are used in the workplace to control risks of other hazards, employers should consider the risks of exposure to COVID-19 for those around the wearer as the wearer may expel airborne particles via the exhalation valve.
There is a difference between face masks and RPE
- Surgical masks (single use face masks) are designed as a loose fitting barrier to prevent the wearer expelling large droplets and as a barrier to protect the wearer from fluid splashes and inhaling larger respiratory droplets. Single use face masks do not offer respiratory protection.
- RPE is designed to protect the wearer and prevent the inhalation of contaminated air or particulate matter (eg asbestos fibres, respirable crystalline silica dust, hazardous substances).
There are many types of RPE, the RPE used is to be selected depending on the hazard and or work being performed. RPE types include for example:
- non-disposable half and full face respirators: disposable respirators
- powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs)
- supplied air respirators
Under the Pandemic Orders, requirements to wear a face mask do not apply to people with breathing difficulties or any other condition that makes it difficult to wear one.
For more information, call the Victorian Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398.
Where employees are not required to wear a mask, employers must continue to implement other risk control measures, so far as is reasonably practicable, to control the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
Correct use of face masks
Face masks are only effective when they are worn and maintained correctly. For example, it is very easy for a face mask to lose its effectiveness if it does not fit, if the front is touched while wearing it, or if it is not washed or disposed of appropriately.
Employers must also provide information, instruction, training and supervision to employees and contractors on:
- when face masks are to be worn
- how to put on and wear face masks correctly to ensure they are effective
- how long face masks can be worn
- how to remove face masks safely, including changing them during shifts
- how to safely store and wash reusable face masks or dispose of single use masks
It is particularly important to provide training for reusable face masks (such as cloth masks), including for cleaning and storage.
Detailed information about the correct use of face masks, including how to safely put on, take off and clean or dispose of masks, is available:
Employers should provide appropriate hygiene amenities for employees to safely put on, remove and dispose of face masks, such as hand washing facilities or alcohol-based hand sanitiser and rubbish bins.
Where employers provide reusable cloth masks, they should also provide facilitiesto clean them. Alternatively, employers may provide an adequate supply of reusable cloth masks that will allow employees to rotate them and clean them at home. Masks should be provided with instructions on cleaning (for example, washing daily after use in hot soapy water) and appropriate secure storage to transport used masks safely (such as plastic zip-lock bags).
Employees have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, which includes following the information, instruction and training provided on how to correctly wear their face mask.
Controlling the risk of heat-related illness
The risk of heat-related illness may be increased while employees wear face masks in hot weather.
Employers should conduct a risk assessment during hot weather when face masks are required under the Victorian Pandemic Orders, or recommended to be worn (for example where 1.5 metres distance from others cannot be maintained). Where a risk assessment has already been undertaken, review and revise where necessary. This should be reflected in the COVIDSafe Plan for the workplace.
Any risk assessment must be undertaken in consultation with employees and HSRs, and take into account:
- whether the work is outdoors with direct radiant heat from the sun
- temperature, humidity and air movement in the work environment
- nature and type of work tasks (for example physical workload)
- clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE)
Heat-related illness can be a risk in indoor and outdoor working environments. Employers need to implement control measures to reduce the risk, including those listed below.
For both indoor and outdoor work environments:
- consider whether the work can be conducted in a way that allows physical distancing of 1.5 metres to be maintained
- ensure drinking water is readily accessible
- revise work and rest schedules to allow employees sufficient time to rehydrate
- where possible, this should include regular short breaks for employees to remove their masks to drink water
- physical distancing measures must be maintained during breaks
- provide employees with information, instruction and training to recognise early signs and symptoms of heat-related illness
- where possible have a buddy system in place so that any signs of heat stress can be quickly identified and addressed
- where possible ensure employees do not work alone
- consider rotating duties to reduce each employee's exposure to heat, including rotation between outdoor and indoor work (where relevant)
- reduce physical demands by using mechanical aids or additional resourcing
- when face masks are likely to become damp or dirty, consider providing an additional supply of face masks to allow for regular replacement
For indoor work:
- ensure the work area is ventilated as much as possible, for example by keeping doors and windows open and installing fans
- where outside air is too hot for natural ventilation or there is no breeze, use air conditioning, ensuring the air conditioning system is using as much fresh air as possible, rather than recirculated air
- use blinds to block direct sunlight from windows
For outdoor work:
- use heat stress calculators to determine level of risk
- provide shade for work areas if possible
- provide rest areas in the shade or airconditioned rooms where possible
- schedule work around cooler times of day
- provide breathable, loose fitting protective clothing where possible
- consider whether any employees are at higher risk of heat-related illnesses when working outdoors
- re-evaluate the workload, taking into account the weather conditions and time of day when the work will be done
- consider whether the work can be rescheduled to another time or day when the temperature will be cooler
Employers have duties under the OHS Act, which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:
- provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors, including psychological health
- provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
- monitor the health of employees
- monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
- provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English
- ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer
- consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them
Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:
- take reasonable care for their own health and safety
- take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace
- co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act or OHS Regulations
The OHS Act gives HSRs a role in raising and resolving any OHS issues with their employer, and powers to take issues further if necessary. For more information see the guidance on powers for HSRs.