Exposure to coronavirus in workplaces

An alert about the risks associated with potential exposure to novel (new) coronavirus (COVID-19) in workplaces.
Safety alert published

Friday 31 Jan 2020

Industries and topics
  • Infectious diseases

Background

(Updated 21 May 2020)

An outbreak of respiratory illness has been caused by a new coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) was declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO). A pandemic is the worldwide spread of disease.

On 16 March 2020 the Victorian Government declared a State of Emergency in Victoria, to help minimise the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is the most recently discovered coronavirus.

A coronavirus infection can cause mild to severe respiratory illness.

Symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia. Affected people may experience:

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

In certain circumstances headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea may also be considered.

The World Health Organization has confirmed that the main driver of transmission is from symptomatic patients, through coughing or sneezing. Transmission by people without symptoms is possible, but rare.

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 coronavirus (COVID-19).

Identifying risks to health

Employers must identify whether there is a risk to the health of their employees from exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) at their workplace.

Identifying the risks associated can include:

  • monitoring expert advice as the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation develops (for example, from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) – 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 coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • talking to employees who have:
    • travelled or are planning to travel
    • been in contact with confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19)
    • symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19)

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 reasonably practicable.

Employers also have a duty to consult with employees and 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 consulting on decisions about how to control risks associated with coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace.

The type of control measures required depends risks associated 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 Chief Health Officer
  • 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
  • cancelling all work-related travel, unless absolutely necessary
  • 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:
    • returning from overseas travel
    • they have been in contact with confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19)
    • they have a confirmed case of coronavirus (COVID-19)
    • they are feeling unwell – no matter how mild their symptoms

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

  • self-isolate immediately, seek medical advice from their GP or the DHHS 24-hour coronavirus (COVID-19) 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)

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

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

Employers should immediately seek advice from the DHHS if there has been a confirmed case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in their workplace.

Everyone in the workplace should practice 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

Working from locations other than the usual place of work

The direction of Victoria's Chief Health Officer is that if you can work from home, you must.

Whether working from home is reasonably practicable depends on the specifics of the workplace, the facilities available for employees to work remotely and the ability for employees to do their work safely from home.

When making decisions about whether employees should work from home, employers should:

  • consult with employees and HSRs
  • consider whether working from a different location will introduce additional risks
  • keep up-to-date with information about coronavirus (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