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18 May 2020

National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles and Industry-specific Guidelines

By Shae McCartney, Hilary Searing

The Principles require businesses to take proactive steps in ensuring the workplace is a healthy and safe working environment for every person.

Government restrictions are expected to start easing in the coming weeks and as a result, workplaces will re-open or increase operations.  Businesses that are re-emerging from the hibernation will need to consider what changes they need to make to their usual WHS systems to comply with government and health directions and the new risks associated with COVID-19.  Businesses that continued to operate through the pandemic will need to monitor and review their current WHS systems and control measures to ensure they remain effective and align with the most up-to-date health information and guidance.

As part of the nationally-consistent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Cabinet released the National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles.

The Principles are consistent with fundamental work health and safety principles that all businesses and employers are already obliged to comply with under legislation, but are designed to provide specific information and guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Principles

  1. All workers, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment.
  2. The COVID-19 pandemic requires a uniquely focused approach to work health and safety (WHS) as it applies to businesses, workers and others in the workplace.
  3. To keep our workplaces healthy and safe, businesses must, in consultation with workers, and their representatives, assess the way they work to identify, understand and quantify risks and to implement and review control measures to address those risks.
  4. As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually relaxed, businesses, workers and other duty holders must work together to adapt and promote safe work practices, consistent with advice from health authorities, to ensure their workplaces are ready for the social distancing and exemplary hygiene measures that will be an important part of the transition.
  5. Businesses and workers must actively control against the transmission of COVID-19 while at work, consistent with the latest advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, including considering the application of a hierarchy of appropriate controls where relevant.
  6. Businesses and workers must prepare for the possibility that there will be cases of COVID-19 in the workplace and be ready to respond immediately, appropriately, effectively and efficiently, and consistent with advice from health authorities.
  7. Existing state and territory jurisdiction of WHS compliance and enforcement remains critical. While acknowledging individual variations across WHS laws mean approaches in different parts of the country may vary, to ensure business and worker confidence, a commitment to a consistent national approach is key, including a commitment to communicating what constitutes best practice in prevention, mitigation and response to the risks presented by COVID-19.
  8. Safe Work Australia (SWA), through its tripartite membership, will provide a central hub of WHS guidance and tools that Australian workplaces can use to successfully form the basis of their management of health and safety risks posed by COVID-19.
  9. States and territories ultimately have the role of providing advice, education, compliance and enforcement of WHS and will leverage the use of the SWA central hub in fulfilling their statutory functions.
  10. The work of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission will complement the work of SWA, jurisdictions and health authorities to support industries more broadly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic appropriately, effectively and safely.

COVID-19-specific WHS guidance

SafeWork Australia has released industry-specific work health and safety guidance to assist with this process, relevant to 23 specific industries, ranging from in-home services and early childhood education to FIFO and agriculture.

For most industries, the guidance covers a range of topics including but not limited to duties under WHS laws, workers' rights, risk assessments, emergency plans, health monitoring, cleaning, PPE and mental health.

However for a number of industries which are already highly regulated by a relevant authority, or differ between States and Territories, SafeWork Australia only provides general information and will refer employers to the relevant bodies that provide specific resources. These industries include:

  • Aged care
  • Education and training
  • Food proceeding and manufacture
  • Health care
  • Hospitality
  • Marine and airline
  • Mining
  • NDIS
  • Office
  • Public transport.

State-based regulators have also emphasised the importance of employers consulting with their workers and their health and safety representatives. Consultation and collaboration are key to the development of prevention and control strategies appropriate and suitable for each workplace.

For industry-specific guidance, see here.

Statement of Regulatory Intent – regulatory approach to Australian work health and safety legislation

WHS regulators in each jurisdiction, excluding Victoria, have also released a Statement of Regulatory Intent which sets out the regulatory approach to Australian WHS legislation during this pandemic. The regulators have recognised that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an exceptional set of circumstances which will have significant impacts on employers, workers, officers and other persons with duties under WHS laws.

For this reason, WHS regulators have agreed to apply a common sense and practical approach to interactions with workplaces and focus on matters that pose serious risks to health and safety. Whilst regulators will take into account an employer's ability to meet its WHS duties given the constraints associated with the pandemic, all employers must prepare and take action to protect workers and others at their workplace from the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

All employers should:

  • have a plan to respond to the issues created by the pandemic;
  • review their exposure and infection control policies and procedures, actively promote social distancing, good hand and respiratory hygiene and increase cleaning of common areas within the work environment;
  • develop and implement safe systems of work (in consultation with workers and/or their Health and Safety Representatives that take into account directions and advice provided by health authorities; and
  • keep monitoring the COVID-19 situation as it develops, relying on information from authoritative sources such as public health authorities.

Recommended WHS measures to implement

The following is a summary of workplace measures recommended by the various WHS regulators.

  • Implement controls that promote social distancing, including:
    • Creating separate walkways through worksites;
    • Limiting the number of people in lunch and other common spaces;
    • Having posters and signage to remind people to maintain 1.5m distance;
    • Avoid sharing desks, phones, offices and other work tools;
    • Avoid face-to-face meetings where possible.
  • Implement controls to reduce direct contact between workers, customers and other people in the workplace, including:
    • Creating barriers and screens;
    • Modifying shifts and rosters;
    • Actively supporting flexible work arrangements;
    • Working from home.
  • Implement controls to reduce environmental exposure, including:
    • Inspecting and reviewing air conditioning and ventilation systems;
    • Increasing cleaning and disinfection of high traffic areas or shared surfaces;
    • Provide cleaning products and instruction for cleaning workspaces;
    • Provide instruction and amenities for personal hygiene and infection control.
  • Implement and promote good hygiene practices amongst workers
  • Use personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary and provide workers with training for its use
  • Manage psycho-social risks for workers and monitor their mental health
  • Communicate, train and supervise workers on workplace measures to address COVID-19
  • Consider industry specific advice for higher risk workplaces or industries (see SafeWork website)

What does this mean for your business?

The Principles require businesses to take proactive steps in ensuring the workplace is a healthy and safe working environment for every person. This involves consulting with workers to identify, understand and quantify the unique risks posed by COVID-19, and implement tailored control measures. Businesses should also be constantly reviewing the control measures to ensure they remain effective based on up to date public health information. While State-based WHS regulators (excluding Victoria) have recognised the exceptional circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not absolve employers of their duty to prepare and take action to protect workers and others at their workplace and to continue to meet their obligations to ensure a safe place of work so far as reasonably practicable.

The Principles also highlight the necessity of strategic planning prior to the transition back into the workplace and the re-opening of businesses to workers and the public. It is clear that the social distancing and increased hygiene measures will be required during the transition.  Businesses must plan for the return of workers, customers and visitors by implementing appropriate control measures (eg. PPE, training in PPE, increased cleaning, social distancing, scheduling work to avoid too many workers in one place), and in the event COVID-19 does occur in the workplace, have a response plan in place. Employers should seek guidance from SafeWork Australia's industry specific resources and the measures recommended by the State-based WHS regulators.

Businesses must continue to stay informed to ensure their practices are consistent with the latest advice from organisation such as the Department of Health, Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, Safe Work Australia, the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and the State WHS regulatory bodies.  

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.