Managing COVID-19 risks: Office environment

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

Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO) Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian CHO Directions for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be required to close temporarily for on-site work
  • remain open for on-site work with a completed COVIDSafe Plan in place
  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan.

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 Directions issued by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO).

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 CHO Directions does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any health directions 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.

COVID-19 and office environments

A COVID-19 infection can cause mild to severe respiratory illness.

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

Current research suggests that COVID-19 spreads through:

  • airborne aerosols generated by actions like coughing, sneezing, talking or singing – these can stay in the air for some time, especially in indoor spaces with poor ventilation
  • droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or sings – these can enter your eyes, nose or mouth when you are in close contact
  • touching objects or surfaces (such as door handles) contaminated with droplets

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

Face masks in workplaces

Directions from the Victorian CHO about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks 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 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 government directions (such as from the Victorian Chief Health Officer and Department of Health (DH)) 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 CHO 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:

  • 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 the Victorian Department of Health (DH)
  • unwell employees do not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for COVID-19 and received a negative test result
  • employees who have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting their results or who are confirmed COVID-19 cases do not attend the workplace

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

  • self-isolate immediately, seek advice from their doctor or the Victorian 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 COVID-19 diagnosis)

In the event of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case at the workplace, Directions from the Victorian Chief Health Officer 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 directions issued by the Victorian CHO, workplaces are 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 directions issued by the CHO, 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

Information on ventilation, air quality and air conditioning

A well ventilated space potentially reduces the concentration of viral particles in the air, reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19. A well designed, located and maintained heating, ventilation and air condition (HVAC) system can prevent aerosol transmission by:

  • supplying clean air to areas where susceptible occupants are located
  • containing contaminated air and/or exhausting it to the outdoor environment

Employers should seek confirmation from a ventilation engineer to ensure the air conditioning system is set to optimal airflow and where relevant, that filters are fitted correctly and working efficiently. Further information is outlined in the Australian Standard AS 1668.2(2012) The use of ventilation and air-conditioning in buildings, Part 2: Mechanical ventilation in buildings.

As a precautionary measure, additional action may be taken to improve indoor air quality. However, specialist engineering advice should be sought to determine compliance of the building with existing professional recommendations and to identify opportunities where indoor air quality may be improved. Possible actions which may be considered include but are not limited to:

  • determining the appropriate air change per hour (ACH) or ventilation rate (litres/second) required for a given space (that is, the ratio of volumetric flow rate to volume of space). If feasible, it is recommended that ventilation rates for office spaces to be set to 10 L/s per person. If ventilation rates cannot be increased, the maximum room occupancy should be decreased
  • disabling demand-control ventilation controls that reduce air supply based on temperature or occupancy
  • increasing fresh air intake to as much as reasonably possible

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, directions from the Victorian CHO may also require employers to take specific response actions.

          Notifiable incidents and COVID-19

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