Preventing and managing COVID-19 risks for returning, new and redeployed employees in healthcare and social assistance

Guidance to help employers manage risks associated with people re-entering the workforce on the pandemic response register, student nurses registered via fast-track and healthcare and social assistance employees redeployed due to COVID-19.

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

COVID-19 can cause mild to severe respiratory illness.

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

Current research suggests that COVID-19 spreads through:

  • 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
  • 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

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees, including independent contractors. This includes preventing risks to safety and health, including psychological health, 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 or Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017.

Initiatives to increase available staff

The healthcare and social services industry is the largest industry employer in Australia. Providing 13% of Australia's total employment, the industry includes hospitals, medical and other healthcare services, residential care services and social assistance services. Federal and state governments have introduced initiatives to increase available staff for the health system in response to COVID-19. Government action and other strategies involve the following groups:

People re-entering the workforce

A short-term pandemic response sub-register came into effect on 6 April 2020. Established by the Medical Board of Australia, the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia and the Pharmacy Board of Australia, the sub-register enables experienced and qualified health practitioners who are not currently practising or have been unregistered within the past 3 years to return to the workforce. Operating on an opt-out basis, practitioners automatically join the sub-register and can immediately work within their scope of practice, if they choose to do so.

Fast-tracked nursing students

International and domestic student nurses in the final year of study will have their registrations fast-tracked. The government has relaxed international student nurse visa conditions, which means international student nurses and other aged care employees will be able to work in clinical placement for more than the current 40 hours a fortnight. Domestic student nurses are also able to work in clinical placement for more than 40 hours a fortnight.

Re-deployed staff

Service closures and infection risks have caused many employees in the healthcare and social assistance industry to temporarily redeploy into other services where demand has increased, such as shared supported living.

Identifying hazards

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

Evidence shows that people who are new to a workplace or young and inexperienced are more likely to be injured in the workplace than other employees. Older persons re-entering the workforce may also be more likely to be injured in the workplace than other employees and may also be more susceptible to the health impacts of COVID-19. The Department of Health (DH) website has information about people who are most at risk of getting coronavirus and those who are most likely to become seriously ill.

It is important that employers identify hazards, assess risks and implement appropriate controls to protect the health and safety of these employees.

Hazards and risks may include:

  • employees not being familiar with the duties, tasks, environment and equipment, for example, portable lifting machines, overhead tracking and duress alarms
  • employees not being provided with or trained in the use and disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE), including donning and doffing of PPE
  • employees not being familiar with workplace policies and procedures, for example, consultation, emergency procedures, security measures, medical records systems, technological systems, incident reporting and occupational violence and aggression (OVA) protocols
  • employees needing to learn new procedures specific to COVID-19, for example, infection control, entry and exit procedures, working in isolation rooms, what to do in the case of feeling unwell
  • increased work demand and related psychosocial effects as a result of working in unfamiliar and extreme circumstances
  • increased manual handling risks due to unfamiliarity with safe lifting techniques, equipment and getting help from other staff members

Hazardous manual handling

Older employees returning to the workforce may be more susceptible to an injury from hazardous manual handling than younger employees. The risk of injury relates to the difference between the demands of the work and the employee's physical capacity for work, rather than just their age. This may mean the workplace needs to adjust the work or the available equipment to ensure these returning employees are safe.

The principles of ensuring health and safety for older employees in the workplace are the same as for any other employees. Specific factors employers should take into consideration when identifying potential hazardous manual handling risks for older returning employees include:

  • the number and complexity of patients allocated to them
  • the physical load across their entire shift, taking into account patient and non-patient-related manual handling
  • the availability of task rotation and sufficient breaks throughout each shift

Controlling risks

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

Consult with employees

Employers have a duty to consult with employees, independent contractors and any HSRs, so far as 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
  • decisions about how to control risks associated with COVID-19
  • management plans for a confirmed case of COVID-19, including information that will be provided in the event of an outbreak

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

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

Screening and quarantining

Information about Care Facilities Directions issued by the Victorian CHO is available on the DH website.

If not subject to Care Facilities Directions issued by the Victorian CHO, employers should implement an employee screening process to minimise the introduction of COVID-19 into the workplace, for example by asking employees before they enter the workplace if they are subject to any directions issued by the Victorian CHO such as isolation, quarantine or in relation to travel, have been in contact with any confirmed cases of COVID-19, or have any of the symptoms listed on this page.

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 DH
  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for COVID-19 and received a negative test result
  • if employees are tested for COVID-19 because they are symptomatic they do not attend the work premises while awaiting the result of that test or if they are a confirmed COVID-19 case
    • employees who are awaiting results from surveillance testing and are asymptomatic may attend the work premises

The symptoms of COVID-19 to watch out for 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 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
  • notify 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

To ensure person-to-person contact is minimised, screening may be in the form of a self-assessment that employees can complete before attending the workplace for each shift.

The 'Staff COVID-19 health questionnaire' on the coronavirus.vic.gov.au website is a useful screening tool for employers.

For information about restrictions in relation to travel see the DH website.

Control measures

The types of control measures depend on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas, the characteristics of the employee, features of the workplace and the nature of the work.

Control measures to help control risks from COVID-19 include:

  • ensuring each employee is suitably qualified for the role
  • ensuring each employee is included in consultation processes
  • monitoring each employee's health
  • providing a full induction and orientation into the role, including support contacts and training in relevant policies and procedures, for example, incident reporting, manual handling and OVA, as well as specific controls associated with COVID-19, including health monitoring processes
  • a supervisory period to ensure each employee has support while gaining experience in the role
  • an introduction to the relevant HSR and person responsible for occupational health and safety (OHS), and encouraging employees to take part in health and safety consultations and issue resolution
  • a clear definition of the job, task or role
  • having regular meetings with line managers to ensure support and feedback are consistently offered and there are opportunities for employees to consult on their concerns and the support required
  • offering peer-to-peer support
  • offering psychosocial and physical wellbeing support

WorkSafe and the DH have guidance on their websites to help manage healthcare, social assistance and community service employees' risk of exposure to COVID-19. Visit the DH website for a range of downloadable guidance resources, including advice for health professionals, the 'COVID-19 Residential Aged Care Facilities Plan for Victoria' and the document, 'Guidance for COVID-19 planning in the community services sector'.

Use the hierarchy of control

The hierarchy of control is a system for controlling risks in the workplace and can help employers eliminate or control risks to their employees and others. The WorkSafe website has information to help employers understand and use the hierarchy of control.

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 their employees and independent contractors at any workplace
  • monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
  • provide information concerning health and safety to employees and independent contractors, including, where appropriate, in languages other than English
  • ensure that persons other than employees 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 reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health. OHS Act duties extend beyond an employer and can apply to any person, owner or otherwise, who has management or control of a workplace, such as a sole trader, for example.

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. For more information, see WorkSafe's guidance on the powers of HSRs.