Managing coronavirus (COVID-19) risks: Office environment

Information about managing risks of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) in an office environment.

Last updated

Tuesday 08 Sep 2020

Industries and topics
  • Office work and professional services
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • Infectious diseases

Restrictions apply in metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be required to be closed for onsite work
  • remain open for onsite work with a completed COVIDSafe Plan or High Risk COVIDSafe Plan
  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations.

These restrictions may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with any changes for your industry.

How are my 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 restrictions.

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work, however having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with Chief Health Officer Directions does not necessarily mean you have complied with your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any health directions that apply to how your business must operate as well as ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and office environments

Coronavirus (COVID-19) can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. The most common coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms reported are:

  • fever
    • chills or sweats
      • cough
        • sore throat
          • shortness of breath
            • runny nose
              • loss of sense of smell or taste

                Coronavirus (COVID-19) is most likely to spread from person-to-person through:

                • close contact with an infected person
                  • touching objects or surfaces (such as door handles) contaminated by a person with the infection

                    Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors. This includes preventing risks to health, including psychological health, and safety associated with potential exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19).

                    Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and others health and safety in the workplace and cooperate with their employers about any action they take to comply with the OHS Act and Regulations.

                    Identifying risks in the office

                    Employers must identify hazards and, if necessary, assess the level of risk to the health of employees, including independent contractors, from exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) at their workplace. This must be done in consultation with health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, and employees, so far as is reasonably practicable.

                    For example, risks of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) that may arise in an office include:

                    • working near other employees and people requiring services
                      • engaging with delivery drivers or contractors attending the workplace
                        • transmission of the virus through high-touch surfaces (such as desks, chairs, light switches)
                          • sharing facilities such as lifts, bathrooms, kitchens and communal break areas
                            • employees sharing items used in the workplace such as computers, phones and hot-desking
                              • travelling to and from the workplace during peak travel times, especially if using public transport

                                Controlling risks

                                Face coverings in workplaces

                                Directions from the Chief Health Officer about face coverings are in place across Victoria. Everyone in Victoria over 12 years old needs to wear a face covering outside of their home, unless they have a lawful excuse not to do so. For more information see the guidance Managing coronavirus (COVID-19) risks: Face coverings in workplaces.

                                Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk, it must be controlled, so far as is reasonably practicable.

                                The types of control measures required depends on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

                                Consult with employees

                                Employers have a duty to consult with employees, independent contractors and any HSRs, so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on identifying hazards or risks and decisions about how to control risks associated with coronavirus (COVID-19).

                                The consultation should be conducted in accordance with any agreed consultation procedures.

                                Planning a safe return to the workplace

                                Employers need to stay up-to-date with, and follow any current government directions (such as from the Victoria Chief Health Officer and DHHS) about returning to work.

                                If employees must return to the workplace, employers should:

                                • complete a COVIDSafe Plan to ensure the workplace has met any requirements under the directions issued by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO)
                                  • assess 'at risk' employees and consider delaying their return to the workplace, in accordance with DHHS advice
                                    • consider the OHS needs of all employees and determine those who would benefit most from returning to the workplace
                                      • prioritise critical business units/teams returning to work, in accordance with business need
                                        • minimise the number of people in the workplace at any one time
                                          • continue to support flexible working arrangements, such as working from home, wherever possible
                                            • stagger start, finish and break times to encourage off-peak travel and use of workplace facilities
                                              • eliminate the use of shared equipment and tools such as desks (hot desking), keyboards, mouse, chairs and headsets, wherever possible
                                                • plan ways to enable physical distancing, such as:
                                                  • allowing at least 1.5 metres distance between people for all tasks, including workplace entrances, exits and breakrooms
                                                  • allowing on average, no more than one person per four square metres of floor
                                                • regularly discuss, review and revise how coronavirus (COVID-19) is being managed in the workplace, in consultation with employees and any HSRs.

                                                  See DHHS for information about the groups of people that are considered 'at risk' or vulnerable in relation to coronavirus (COVID-19).

                                                  Ensure employees know what to do

                                                  An employer's duty to eliminate or reduce risks associated with exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) so far as is reasonably practicable includes ensuring that:

                                                  • employees know what to do or who to notify if they feel unwell or suspect they've been infected, according to the information provided by DHHS
                                                  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for coronavirus (COVID-19) and received a negative test result
                                                  • employees who have been tested for coronavirus (COVID-19) and are awaiting their results or who are confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases do not attend the workplace

                                                  If an employee develops any of the symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), however mild, they should:

                                                  • self-isolate immediately, seek advice from their doctor or the DHHS 24-hour coronavirus hotline on 1800 675 398 and get tested
                                                  • tell their employer as soon as possible, follow the procedures their workplace has in place, and update their employer if their situation changes (for example if they receive a positive coronavirus (COVID-19) diagnosis)

                                                  Minimising the introduction of coronavirus (COVID-19) to the workplace

                                                  Employers should implement a process to minimise the introduction of coronavirus (COVID-19) to a workplace.

                                                  This should include:

                                                  • providing employees with information and training before they return to the workplace about:
                                                    • coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms
                                                    • what to do if they feel unwell
                                                    • when they need to stay away from the workplace
                                                  • instructing employees to stay home if they are unwell, no matter how mild their symptoms are
                                                    • displaying information (such as posters and signs) about coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms and when to get tested, in prominent locations around the workplace
                                                      • displaying signs at workplace entrances, instructing people not to enter the workplace if they:
                                                        • are unwell or have any coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms
                                                        • have been in contact with any confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19)
                                                        • are subject to any health directions (such as isolation, quarantine or in relation to travel)

                                                      Record keeping and contact tracing 

                                                      Under current public health advice, all Victorian workplaces are required to establish and maintain a register of every person who attends the workplace for a period of more than 15 minutes. This includes all employees, sub-contractors, and any customers, clients or visitors permitted in the workplace, including workplace inspectors.

                                                      If an employee or visitor tests positive for coronavirus (COVID-19), a current and accurate workplace attendance register will allow employers to immediately identify anyone who has been in close contact with that person within the previous 48 hours.

                                                      For information and guidance on record keeping and contact tracing, visit the DHHS website.

                                                      Physical distancing

                                                      Employers should ensure that physical distancing of at least 1.5 metres between people is achieved and maintained, and there is on average no more than one person per four square metres of floor space, wherever possible.

                                                      Employers should encourage employees to maintain physical distancing wherever possible, including when entering and exiting the workplace and in meal and break rooms. 

                                                      Workplaces that have areas open to, or used by the public, may be subject to particular physical distancing requirements under the Restricted Activity Directions and employers must follow any public health directions that apply.

                                                      Controls to achieve physical distancing may include:

                                                      • marking safe distances in work, transit and break areas (for example on floors and walls)
                                                        • using floor markings or queuing systems at waiting areas, such as lifts, foyers, printing facilities and areas accessible by the public
                                                          • place signage at workplace and room entrances displaying the maximum capacity of people allowed inside the space
                                                            • installing temporary physical barriers (such as plastic screens) between work areas, where appropriate
                                                              • considering different shift patterns to minimise the number of employees onsite, for example introducing morning and afternoon shifts
                                                                • staggering start times, breaks and finish times to avoid congestion in high traffic areas and minimise employees coming into contact with each other as they move around the workplace
                                                                  • re-designing the workspace to maintain physical distancing requirements. For example by spreading out desks, workstations and furniture in break rooms and common areas. When changing the physical layout of the workplace, ensure the layout allows safe entry, exit and movement within the workplace
                                                                    • allocate seating in waiting areas that are accessible to the public, to maintain physical distancing between clients
                                                                      • limiting the number of people that attend the workplace. For example, request clients do not bring family members or others to appointments, unless essential
                                                                        • reinforcing the need to maintain physical distancing and other control measures, for example displaying signs, posters, emails and regular communication

                                                                          Workplace gatherings

                                                                          Where possible, all face-to-face meetings and training should be replaced with video and teleconferencing.

                                                                          If face-to-face meetings or training sessions are essential, employers should ensure that:

                                                                          • the area enables employees to keep at least 1.5 metres apart and with 4 square metres of space per person, such as conference rooms or outdoor locations
                                                                            • the number of people attending is as limited as possible
                                                                              • the amount of face-to-face time is as limited as possible
                                                                                • If indoors, the area is well ventilated

                                                                                  Hygiene

                                                                                  Maintaining good hygiene can prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Employers should:

                                                                                  • ensure all employees follow good hygiene practices, including washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, covering coughs and sneezes, or coughing into their elbow or shoulder and avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth
                                                                                    • display hygiene information in prominent locations in the workplace such as meal break rooms, meeting rooms, reception areas and toilets, in a format that is understood by all employees
                                                                                      • provide alcohol-based hand sanitiser for employees and visitors at the workplace. Hand sanitiser should be placed at multiple locations throughout the workplace, such as at entrances and exits, high traffic areas and in all meal break rooms
                                                                                        • communicate with employees about hand sanitiser locations and encourage regular use
                                                                                          • provide disinfectant wipes so that employees are able to sanitise work surfaces and frequently used equipment, such as keyboard and mouse, before and after use
                                                                                            • encourage employees to regularly clean personal objects often, such as mobile phones, keys, wallets and office passes
                                                                                              • eliminate the shared use of equipment and tools (such as hot-desking), wherever possible. If it is not possible to eliminate, then reduce and ensure sufficient cleaning and disinfecting occurs between use
                                                                                                • regularly discuss hygiene requirements with employees and supervise to ensure they are been followed
                                                                                                  • direct anyone visiting the workplace, such as members of the public, customers and delivery drivers to use alcohol-based hand sanitiser upon entering the workplace
                                                                                                    • ensure handwashing facilities, or if not possible, alcohol-based hand sanitisers, are readily available for employees to use after interacting with others

                                                                                                      Amenities

                                                                                                      Employers must ensure that employees have access to appropriate amenities. Employers should review and revise the number and locations of amenities, to reduce movement around the workplace.

                                                                                                      Amenities need to include:

                                                                                                      • hand washing facilities (whether permanent or temporary), such as a wash basin, clean running water, soap and paper towels, placed in strategic locations to ensure employees can access them in a timely manner
                                                                                                        • access to alcohol-based hand sanitiser
                                                                                                          • rubbish bins with touch-free lids (such as foot pedal bins)
                                                                                                            • thorough and regular cleaning and sanitation
                                                                                                              • appropriate waste management systems

                                                                                                                Workplace cleaning

                                                                                                                Cleaning the workplace is an important way to reduce the risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission. The workplace should be cleaned more often than usual to reduce the likelihood of transmission.

                                                                                                                Thorough and regular cleaning needs to be undertaken of all frequently touched surfaces, such as:

                                                                                                                • counters
                                                                                                                  • handrails
                                                                                                                    • doors and doorhandles
                                                                                                                      • phones
                                                                                                                        • keyboards
                                                                                                                          • desks
                                                                                                                            • shared machines such as printers, photocopier and EFTPOS
                                                                                                                              • taps and sinks
                                                                                                                                • lift buttons
                                                                                                                                  • workplace amenities such as kitchens, lunch rooms, communal areas, change rooms, toilets, drink fountains and vending machines

                                                                                                                                    Cleaning needs to be conducted in accordance with the DHHS information on cleaning and disinfecting for workplaces.

                                                                                                                                    Lifts

                                                                                                                                    There is no requirement to provide four square metres of space per person in lifts, however employers should still ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that good hygiene practices and physical distancing is achieved in lifts and lift waiting areas.

                                                                                                                                    Control measures may include:

                                                                                                                                    • reducing congestion during peak times by staggering start, finish and break times
                                                                                                                                      • limiting the number of passengers allowed inside each lift at a time and displaying signs at lift waiting areas advising of the limit
                                                                                                                                        • providing access to alcohol-based hand sanitiser at lift waiting areas
                                                                                                                                          • displaying signs inside lifts and at lift waiting areas, promoting good hygiene practices and physical distancing
                                                                                                                                            • using physical markers in lifts and lift waiting areas to achieve physical distancing
                                                                                                                                              • ensuring high touch surfaces, such as lift buttons and railings are cleaned regularly
                                                                                                                                                • managing congestion by creating specific pathways and movement flows
                                                                                                                                                  • encouraging stair use, where practicable

                                                                                                                                                    Signage and posters

                                                                                                                                                    Employers should display signs and posters around the workplace to remind employees and others of:

                                                                                                                                                    • the symptoms, risks, and how to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19)
                                                                                                                                                      • hygiene requirements
                                                                                                                                                        • physical distancing requirements
                                                                                                                                                          • changes of operation due to COVID-19

                                                                                                                                                            Information needs to be available in a format and language understood by all employees.

                                                                                                                                                            Managing psychosocial hazards from coronavirus (COVID-19)

                                                                                                                                                            To manage psychosocial hazards that have arisen or increased as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19), employers should:

                                                                                                                                                            • maintain regular communication and consultation with employees on how coronavirus (COVID-19) is being managed at the workplace and what controls are being put in place
                                                                                                                                                              • ensure any changes to systems of work as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19) are clearly understood by employees
                                                                                                                                                                • keep up-to-date with information on coronavirus (COVID-19) and regularly share this information with employees
                                                                                                                                                                  • proactively support employees psychological health (for example, provide and promote use of psychological supports such as EAP) and ensure employee support services are remotely accessible
                                                                                                                                                                    • provide employees with a point of contact to discuss their concerns, such as HSRs and/or employee agencies

                                                                                                                                                                      What do to if an employee has coronavirus (COVID-19)

                                                                                                                                                                      In the event of a confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) case, employers should follow the advice provided by DHHS

                                                                                                                                                                      Notifiable incidents and coronavirus (COVID-19)

                                                                                                                                                                      From 28 July 2020 new temporary regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 specify when employers and self-employed persons must notify WorkSafe of a confirmed diagnosis of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace. For more information see the guidance Notifiable incidents involving coronavirus (COVID-19).

                                                                                                                                                                      Legal duties

                                                                                                                                                                      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
                                                                                                                                                                        • provide adequate facilities for the welfare of employees and independent contractors
                                                                                                                                                                          • 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 of the employer
                                                                                                                                                                              • 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

                                                                                                                                                                                      A person with management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health.

                                                                                                                                                                                      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

                                                                                                                                                                                            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.