On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a Pandemic (an infectious disease outbreak that spreads on a global scale).
Over 2000 cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed in Australia. The situation is rapidly evolving.
Managing the risks from COVID-19
The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require a person conducting a business or undertaking such as Employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace (the model WHS laws have been implemented in all jurisdictions except Victoria and Western Australia.)
To comply with the model WHS laws, Employers must identify hazards at the workplace and the associated risks, and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate those risks, or where this is not reasonably practicable, to minimise the risk.
What should Employers do to protect workers from COVID-19?
Under the model WHS Laws, Employers must have measures in place to eliminate or manage the risks arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. This extends to taking all reasonably practicable measures to prevent worker from being affected by COVID-19.
Standard measures Employers should take include:
- Informing workers of the risks of COVID-19 and the measures being taken by Employers to reduce the risks;
- Directing workers who have returned from overseas or interstate travel or who have been in contact with a known COVID-19 case into 14 days of self isolation;
- Advising workers to seek immediate medical advice if they develop symptoms;
- Following all advice from health authorities on physical distancing, non-essential travel and public and private gatherings;
- Providing hand washing facilities, hand sanitisers, disposable hand towels, tissues and cleaning supplies that are clean, properly stocked and in good working order;
- Promoting good hygiene practices through regular communication, reinforcement and signage;
- Keeping the workplace clean and hygienic, particularly hard and high touch surfaces such as door handles and lift buttons;
- Actively encouraging workers who are sick with respiratory illness to stay home until they are recovered; and
- Isolating worker with respiratory symptoms and arranging for them to be sent home and/or for medical assistance and directing them to stay home until they have no symptoms.
Employers in high risk industries such as healthcare will need to take far greater precautions.
Working from Home/Telecommuting
To flatten the curve of COVID-19 infection, the Federal and State Governments have strongly encouraged workers to work from home when they can do so.
Employers should also consider whether the advanced age or co-morbidities of workers renders them more susceptible to COVID-19, in which case those workers may need to self-isolate and work from home.
Employers retain a primary duty of care and must do what is reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of their workers, including when allowing workers to work from their home.
This extends to ensuring that the worker working from home has:
- A clear understanding of work and workload expectations;
- Established boundaries between work and non-work time to avoid stress and fatigue;
- Encouragement and a means of remaining in contact with the worker’s team to avoid isolation;
- A safe workspace in the home, including an ergonomic desk set up, safe access and adequate lighting;
- Equipment that is safe, well maintained and in good working order; and
- In home safety such as operational circuit protectors and smoke alarms.
Workers compensation implications of COVID-19
In Queensland, in the event a worker contracts COVID-19, and can demonstrate that work was a ‘significant contributing factor’ to contracting the disease, the worker will be entitled to statutory workers’ compensation.
Demonstrating employment was a significant contributing factor will be easier for workers in circumstances where there is a ‘cluster’ of COVID-19 infections arising from a work setting.
However, it will be more difficult if the contracting of the disease cannot be readily traced to a work related source, and once the infection becomes more rife in the community.
Injuries sustained while working from home or telecommuting are compensable if the injury arises out of or in the course of the worker’s employment, and the employment was a significant contributing factor to the injury.
Injuries sustained while on a recess break from work are also compensable, as long as the injury is not caused through the worker subjecting themselves to an abnormal risk of injury during the recess.
Rehabilitation and return to work obligations to workers with accepted claims
Employers’ obligations with respect to rehabilitation and return to work for injured workers with accepted claims are ongoing.
Workers may continue to be provided with access to medical and allied health care, with many providers arranging remote and no contact options for treatment. It is important not to disrupt the continuity of care insofar as that is possible.
All non-essential surgeries have been cancelled by the order of the Federal Government, which may extend the life of open claims where surgery is required.
Employers will also need to consider whether injuries make workers more susceptible to COVID-19, or to the mental effects of isolation that could be associated with working from home, and employ additional measures to protect those injured workers.
This article was written by Graeme Traves, Partner and Brooke Jacobs, Special Counsel.