Following the workplace safety principles released by National Cabinet in late April, Safe Work Australia (SWA) has continued to develop their online hub to be a one-stop-shop for pandemic-specific safety needs for large employers, small businesses and workers. SWA has broken down the information to be role and industry specific.
For instance, there are 23 tabs unique to employers in the Building and Construction industry, ranging from COVID-19's effect on consultation and risk assessment requirements, to the availability of respiratory masks in the workplace, to scenario-based case studies.
The possibility of the coronavirus re-emerging in waves has been flagged by Australia’s Chief Health Minister Brendan Murphy, so PCBUs will be expected to inform themselves of new safety strategies and implement them beyond the short term. Safety regulators are anticipated to check for recorded and practised pandemic safety measures (for example, seeking evidence of risk assessments, implementation of control measures, ongoing reviews of those assessments, training and consultation).
In addition to these educational tools, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has called for state and territory governments to amend their workplace health and safety legislation to incorporate clear and enforceable controls such as social distancing and notification requirements.
"Creating an obligation for employers to implement the best possible methods of prevention, protection and cleaning, and also to report cases in their workplaces to state health and safety regulators are common-sense reforms which will keep working people safe and help prevent the spread of the virus," says ACTU secretary Sally McManus.
With or without a specific legislative response, we consider the general duties (‘so far as reasonably practicable’ and ‘due diligence’) combined with SWA’s referable online guidance would nonetheless require the best available COVID-19 control methods, that is reasonably practicable for the business, to be implemented at all workplaces. Therefore, it is crucial that employers ensure that the guides are followed, and risk assessments performed prior to any return to work. Failure to take those steps may result in enforcement action taken not only by Health and Safety Regulators, but by Police through infringement notices, in certain circumstances where public health directives are contravened.
If you require further information or have any queries in relation to this legal update, please contact a member of our Safety and Employment team who can assist.
For assistance with risk management strategies for your workplace please contact Darren Sharry at DWF Risk.
We would like to acknowledge the contribution of Lachlan Thomas to this article.