Exposure to COVID-19 in workplaces

An alert about the risks associated with potential exposure to COVID-19 in workplaces.
Safety alert published

Friday 31 Jan 2020

Industries and topics
  • COVID-19
  • Infectious diseases

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 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 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.

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.

Identifying risks to health

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. This includes identifying risks to health or safety associated with potential exposure to COVID-19.

Identifying the risks associated can include:

  • monitoring expert advice as the COVID-19 situation develops (for example, from the Department of Health (DH) – link below)
  • reviewing infection control policies, procedures and practices, to ensure they are effective and are being followed
  • educating and keeping employees up to date on new information
  • considering whether undertaking work activities puts other people (such as clients or members of the public) at risk of exposure to COVID-19
  • talking to employees who have travelled or are planning to travel

Controlling risks to health

Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must eliminate the risk so far as is reasonably practicable and when elimination is not possible, reduce the risk so far as is reasonably practicable.

Face masks in workplaces

Directions from the CHO about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks 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.

The type of control measures required depends on associated risks as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace. Control measures may include:

  • recommending employees work from home
  • implementing physical distancing initiatives in accordance with recommendations made by the Victorian CHO
  • providing adequate facilities or products (such as hand sanitiser, where available) to allow employees to maintain good hygiene practices
  • providing appropriate personal protective equipment, including information or training on why the equipment is required and how to safely use it
  • avoiding shared use of phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment
  • developing an infection control policy
  • reconsidering non-essential work-related travel
  • avoiding face to face meetings by using other methods of communication such as phone or videoconferences
  • ensuring employees understand when to stay away from the workplace such as when:
    • they have been in contact with confirmed cases of COVID-19
    • they have a confirmed case of COVID-19
    • they are feeling unwell – no matter how mild their symptoms
    • they are awaiting the results of a test for COVID-19

Everyone in the workplace should practise good hygiene by:

  • regularly cleaning their hands with soap and water (minimum 20 seconds) or an alcohol-based hand rub (at least 60 per cent alcohol)
  • if hands are visibly dirty wash them with soap and water
  • always washing hands with soap and water:
    • before eating
    • after visiting the toilet
    • after attending a public place
    • after coughing, sneezing or nose blowing
  • covering their nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing, and disposing of used tissues immediately
  • keeping a distance of at least 1.5 metres between themselves and others
  • cleaning and disinfecting high touch surfaces regularly, such as phones, keyboards, door handles, light switches and bench tops
  • seeing a health care professional if they are unwell, and staying away from the workplace and other public places

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:

  • 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.

Ensure employees know what to do

If an employee thinks they may have been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, or develops symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, they should not go to work. Instead, 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)

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.

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 (see link below)
  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including employees who have been tested for COVID-19 or who are confirmed COVID-19 cases

Employees should advise their employer as soon as possible, if they receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, particularly if they have been in the workplace.

In the event of a suspected or confirmed 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 Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 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.

Working from locations other than the usual place of work

In some circumstances employees may work from a location other than their usual place of work, this includes working from home. Whether working from an alternate locations is reasonably practicable depends on the specifics of the workplace, the facilities available for employees to work from an alternate location and the ability for employees to do their work safely from an alternate location.

When making decisions about whether employees should work from an alternate location including their home, employers should:

  • review the Victorian CHO Directions and public health advice relating to working arrangements, including working from home
  • consult with employees and HSRs
  • consider whether working from a different location will introduce additional risks
  • keep up-to-date with information about COVID-19 risks and appropriate control measures
  • seek advice specific to their circumstances, including from employee and employer organisations and legal providers

For some workplaces working remotely will not be reasonably practicable (such as those involving customer facing roles or work that relies on specialised plant or equipment). When this applies, other controls such as infection control procedures and other forms of physical distancing must be implemented, to minimise the risk of infection.

Legal duties

Employers have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors, including psychological health
  • provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
  • monitor the health of employees
  • monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
  • provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English
  • ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer
  • consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

  • take reasonable care for their own health and safety
  • take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace
  • co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act

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