Managing COVID-19 risks: Office environment

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

Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Minister for Health's Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian Pandemic Orders for applicability.

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.

Transmission of COVID-19

Researchers are still learning about COVID-19, its long-term effects and emerging variants.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that can result in mild to very severe illness and death.

The main way COVID-19 spreads is when a person with COVID-19 exhales droplets and/or aerosol particles containing the virus. This can happen when they breathe out, cough, sneeze, speak, shout or sing.

Exhaled droplets range in size. Large droplets settle out of the air faster than they evaporate. Small droplets remain suspended in the air for longer periods. Very fine droplets may contain the virus, and can stay suspended in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours. Small droplets and particles are often referred to as ‘aerosols’.

Transmission of COVID-19 can occur in a number of ways, and possibly in combination.

1. Airborne transmission

This occurs when a person inhales aerosols that may contain viral particles that are infectious.

While the risk of transmission is highest when close to an infectious person, air currents can disperse small droplets and particles over long distances. These may be inhaled by people who have not had face-to-face contact or been in the same space with the infectious person. Airborne transmission is more likely to occur in indoor or enclosed settings that are poorly ventilated, crowded, or both. In these kinds of settings, the virus may remain suspended in the air for longer and increase the risk of spread as people tend to spend longer periods in indoor settings.

2. Droplet transmission

Transmission occurs where exhaled droplets from a person with COVID-19 come into contact with another person's mucosal surfaces (nose, mouth or eyes). The risk of transmission is highest when close to the source, where the concentration of these droplets is greatest.

3. Contaminated surfaces transmission

People may also become infected by touching surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus, and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth without cleaning their hands.

COVID-19 and office environments

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 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 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 COVID-19 that may arise in an office include transmission of the virus from:

  • working near other employees and people requiring services
  • engaging with delivery drivers or contractors attending the workplace
  • contact with 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

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.

Face masks in workplaces

Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks in workplaces.

COVID-19 vaccinations in workplaces

COVID-19 vaccination is one control measure that can reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces. This should be part of a suite of controls used to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces.

Consult with employees

Employers have a duty to consult with employees, independent contractors and any health and safety representatives (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 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 Pandemic Orders about returning to work.

When employees return to the workplace, employers should:

  • assess 'at risk' employees and consider delaying their return to the workplace, in accordance with DH 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
  • stagger start, finish and break times to encourage off-peak travel and use of workplace facilities
  • avoid the use of shared equipment and tools such as desks (hot desking), keyboards, mouse, chairs and headsets, wherever possible, and ensure any equipment that is shared is cleaned and disinfected between users
  • continue 1.5m physical distancing arrangements where it can be achieved, noting this does not prevent the return to 100% capacity when directions from the Victorian Minister for Health allow it
  • regularly discuss, review and revise how COVID-19 is being managed in the workplace, in consultation with employees and any HSRs

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

Ensure employees know what to do

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

  • confirmed COVID-19 cases do not attend the workplace
  • 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 DH
  • employees who have been in contact with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 are instructed to follow DH procedures
  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting their test result

The symptoms of COVID-19 are: fever, chills or sweats, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose and loss or change in sense of smell or taste.

Some people may also experience headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

If an employee develops any COVID-19 symptoms, however mild, they should:

  • self-isolate immediately, get tested and if needed, seek advice from their doctor or the Victorian Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398.
  • tell their employer as soon as possible, follow the procedures their workplace has in place to deal with symptomatic people, and update their employer if their situation changes, for example: if they receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis

In the event of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case or cases at the workplace, Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health may also require employers to take specific response actions.

Minimising the introduction of COVID-19 to the workplace

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

This should include:

  • providing employees with information and training before they return to the workplace about:
    • 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 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 COVID-19 symptoms
    • have been in contact with any confirmed cases of COVID-19
    • are subject to any health directions (such as isolation, quarantine or in relation to travel)

Record keeping and contact tracing

Under Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health, workplaces may be required to keep records of attendance to assist with contact tracing.

Physical distancing

Physical distancing is one of a suite of control measures that should form part of a COVIDSafe Plan, appropriate to each individual workplace.

Employers are recommended to create physical distancing of at least 1.5 metres between people wherever possible.

Under Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health, workplaces are required to comply with particular density quotient rules.

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
  • 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 enable physical distancing . 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

Ventilation

People in indoor environments, particularly in crowded or inadequately ventilated spaces, are at a higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. When someone infected with COVID-19 has been present, the virus may linger in poorly ventilated spaces or areas with stagnant air for a longer period of time.

Providing an adequate supply of fresh air (ventilation) to enclosed areas of a workplace dilutes the number of airborne virus particles and lowers transmission risk. Improving ventilation alone does not reduce the risk of transmission via droplets and contaminated surfaces. It needs to be considered as part of a suite of infection control measures.

Adequate ventilation can be achieved using natural or mechanical ventilation, or a combination of the two.

  • Natural ventilation is fresh air coming in through open windows, doors or air vents.
  • Mechanical ventilation means a method of forced or induced ventilation using mechanical air-handling systems that bring in fresh air from outside. It forms part of a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

Note: Natural ventilation is dependent on variable local conditions (eg window opening size, weather conditions including wind speed and direction) and may not always be effective in quickly removing airborne virus particles.

Better ventilation can be achieved by:

  • increasing the rate that air is supplied
  • increasing the supply of fresh outdoor air
  • reducing or eliminating recirculated air in HVAC systems
  • improving filtration for air recirculated by HVAC systems if the ventilation rate is not compromised
  • regular maintenance of the HVAC system, including changing filters

Guidance on HVAC systems is available in AS1668.2:2012 The use of ventilation and air-conditioning in buildings, Part 2: Mechanical ventilation in buildings. Further information on HVAC systems and COVID-19 is available in World Health Organization (WHO) guidance Roadmap to improve and ensure good indoor ventilation in the context of COVID-19 (who.int).

In areas where it is not possible to maintain adequate ventilation and there is a high risk of transmission, portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered air cleaners may be appropriate to be used to reduce the concentration of airborne virus particles and other aerosol contaminants. These units are not a substitute for ventilation. Employers should assess the risk and/or undertake a ventilation assessment to identify what ventilation strategies are appropriate for the space and whether an air cleaner is needed and consider operational placement and maintenance of these units.

Employers should work with the building's owner or manager to improve ventilation where possible. Engaging a suitably qualified person such as an occupational hygienist or a ventilation engineer to advise and assist should also be considered.

For more information about ventilation, see the following documents on the DH Infection prevention control (IPC) resources page:

  • COVID-19: Ventilation principles and strategies to reduce aerosol transmission in community and workplace settings.
  • Department of Health IPC Ventilation Policy.
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission from air-circulating, wind-blowing devices and activities.
  • Ventilation strategies to reduce COVID-19 infection, when used as per DH guidelines.

Hygiene

Maintaining good hygiene can prevent the spread of 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 two in one detergent and disinfectant wipes so that employees are able to disinfect work surfaces and frequently used equipment, such as keyboard and mouse, before and after use
  • encourage employees to regularly clean and disinfect personal objects often, such as mobile phones, keys, wallets and office passes
  • avoid the shared use of equipment and tools (such as hot-desking), wherever possible. If it is not possible to avoid, then reduce the amount of equipment that must be shared and ensure sufficient cleaning and disinfecting occurs between users
  • regularly discuss hygiene requirements with employees and supervise to ensure they are 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 (wash basin, clean running water, soap and paper towels), 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)
        • appropriate waste management systems

          Amenities need to be thoroughly and regularly cleaned and disinfected.

          Workplace cleaning

          Cleaning the workplace is an important way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The workplace needs to be cleaned more often than usual on a regular basis to reduce the likelihood of transmission.

          Thorough and regular cleaning and disinfection needs to be undertaken of all surfaces frequently touched by many different hands, with a focus on communal areas 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 DH information on cleaning and disinfecting for workplaces.

          Lifts

          Employers should 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 and disinfected 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 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 COVID-19

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

          • maintain regular communication and consultation with employees on how 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 COVID-19 are clearly understood by employees
          • keep up-to-date with information on 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 an employee assistance program) 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 COVID-19

          In the event of a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case at the workplace, Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health may also require employers to take specific response actions.

          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.