There is no “one size fits all” approach that will work for every workplace to manage the Coronavirus (COVID-19); however, employers have a compelling reason to prepare for the financial and legal issues coronavirus may raise for them and their employees. It doesn’t matter if you’re an employer responsible for workers (e.g. a business), or an employee, you must manage the risk.

While employers are used to dealing with flu season every year, the new novel coronavirus (or COVID-19) has caused many employers to rethink how they deal with illnesses and whether they have appropriate plans in place for emerging health threats.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause various illnesses and include, for example:

  • The common cold;
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); and
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Now that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 is rising in Australia, employers should be thinking about the coronavirus and its potential impact on the workplace and consider the following tips to protect their employees and workplaces.

HR Expert Australia recommends that all employers do the following:

1. Demonstrate Strong and Decisive Leadership.

At times like these, people need strong and decisive leadership. Keep up to date with government and health information and how this may affect your organisation and its workers. Understand at-risk countries, monitor or State Health Authority websites for resources. Do not guess or assume, have your decision making guided by data and consider designating a person or team responsible for the organisation’s response.

2. Follow Australian Government Guidelines.

There are some things all employers can, and should, do. As a starting point, all Australian employers should monitor information about the disease from trusted sources – in particular, the official Commonwealth Department of Health announcements and guidance. WorkSafe Australian may also provide relevant and useful resources from time to time.

3. Assess Your Unique Risk Profile.

As there is no vaccine for COVID-19, the best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure to the virus. At the most basic level, are you aware of anyone in your organisation who has travelled to any countries that are on the travel ban list or been in connection with anyone that has been exposed? The higher the sphere of contact with people, the greater the risk of infection. It is important that all businesses assess their own risk profile, especially those that operate primarily on face-to-face public contact such as hospitality, events, attractions, health care and public transport.

4. Consider Your Business Continuity Measures.

To ensure business continuity for your customers and workers, consider if your employees can work at home and what are the ramifications if they do? While it may seem to be a very extreme response to allow all people, where possible, to work from home, it may be the safest option. It is essential that all employers also consider the adverse effects on productivity, distractions and safety. An alternative may be to establish smaller teams that rotate their working in the office to minimise person to person contact. Whatever industry you work in, having a business continuity plan in place may help to keep your business operating.

5. Have an Internal Communications Strategy.

There is no substitute for regular, timely and easy to understand communications with your employees about your response to the evolving issues. It is essential to consult with your people about your answer and approach and keep them informed if there are any changes. Employees expect to be kept up to date via email or by using technology platforms such as Yammer, Workplace, Slack or Whatsapp that is fast and efficient.

6. Educate Your Workers.

It’s essential to educate workers about the transmission and symptoms of the coronavirus to help calm fears and reduce the spread of misinformation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 can be transmitted person-to-person, specifically through respiratory secretions such as coughing and sneezing. Common signs of the virus are respiratory symptoms; fever; cough; shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Severe cases may cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or death. Tell your workers anyone with symptoms should stay away from the workplace until they have been tested, treated or have recovered.

7. Reduce Potential Exposure.

There are always specific precautionary measures employers can take to reduce the risk of exposure to their employees to most infectious diseases, including COVID-19. It’s still a good idea to strongly urge employees to regularly wash their hands, cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing and avoid close contact with individuals showing symptoms of respiratory illnesses. Employers can also take extra precautions. For example, an employer may want to consider providing hand sanitiser in high-traffic areas or around items that are handled by numerous people (e.g., shared computers, copiers, bathrooms). Another option is to implement different working hours that limit contact with other people and implement processes that would minimise face to face participation in meetings.

8. Protect Your Workers.

A range of health and safety obligations apply to employers as a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) under WHS legislation to protect your workers, customers and others. If you believe a worker or customer is at risk of infection of coronavirus, you have a duty of care to raise the alarm as soon as possible. As an employer, you should also take steps to prevent the further spread of disease, and this will include taking steps to ensure that your employees comply with relevant Commonwealth Department of Health directions concerning compulsory self-isolation.

9. Update Your Company Policies and Procedures.

Businesses that have direct contact with the public should review their infectious control policies and procedures. They should also develop and implement safe systems of work, in consultation with workers and their Health and Safety Representatives.  It is essential that policies and directions are in line with health authorities and that organisations keep monitoring the COVID-19 situation as it develops.

10. Allow Working from Home or a Different Location.

Encourage employees who can perform their tasks from home to work remotely or from a different location as the threat of contagion from the novel coronavirus Covid-19 continues. Industry observers have dubbed the current levels of quarantine around the world as the “largest work-from-home experiment in history”. Employees from a wide range of industries continue to log into digital collaboration channels and report to work amid the lockdown.

11. Postpone All Business Travel.

Unless travel is essential for the continuity of your business, postpone or cancel all trips. If you have employees that are supposed to travel to a coronavirus-affected region, consider cancelling this in line with government advice. An alternative solution, for example, is to conduct business meetings over Skype from home offices. Make sure to check the advisories on travel restrictions issued by the CDC and other government agencies to help you decide the best way to evaluate and implement revised business travel strategies.

12. Use Collaboration Tools.

Collaboration tools allow for virtual set-up from home or anywhere connected to the internet. A pandemic could see millions more relying on technology – notably, mobile and cloud-based productivity and messaging tools such as Slack or Zoom. Just this week, Google began giving free access to the more advanced features of its video conferencing tool Hangouts Meet to G Suite customers. Hangouts users can now set up larger meetings with up to 250 participants, live stream with up to 100,000 viewers, and record meetings and save them on Google Drive. If your organisation is not already using collaborative working online tools, now is the time to start.

13. Allow Employees to use Their Leave Entitlements.

Anyone that is unwell should be directed to use their leave entitlements and stay away from the workplace. If an employee has exhausted their paid personal/carers leave entitlement but requires further leave for either their own or a dependant’s sickness or injury, they may take unpaid sick leave. Employees may also request to take paid annual leave or long service leave (if they have entitlement available) to maintain some form of income. Many employers are also allowing employees that have exhausted all leave options to take “special leave” for 10 to 20 days, at full pay, which goes above and beyond any legal obligations. It is essential that leaders actively encourage sick employees to stay home.

14. Enforce Data Privacy and Confidentiality.

Managing teams remotely carries its risks, the higher the number of employees working from home or a different location, the higher the potential risk of a breach of confidential information or data privacy. Remind employees of their obligations under data privacy laws and update your rules around sensitive handling of corporate files on a personal device. The most important one is keeping corporate and private data secure. Some companies have a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy that allows employees to run office apps on their personal device, but this can sometimes blur the boundaries between private and corporate use.

15. A Confirmed Case of Coronavirus in Your Workplace.

If there is a known case of coronavirus within your workforce, then it is likely that other employees who came into contact with the infected person will be required to self-isolate/quarantine in accordance with The Department of Health guidelines. Also, as an employer and PCBU under the WHS laws, you will need to consider whether your offices should be closed. This will depend on the extent to which the person with the virus displayed symptoms at work and came into contact with others in the workplace. It is essential to keep the workforce informed and also follow all CDC or Government Health procedures in relation to sanitisation to stop the spread to anyone else.

16. Be Ready for Workers’ Compensation Claims.

According to Comcare, a virus (like COVID-19) is likely to be considered under the disease provisions of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act). For a disease to be covered, it must be contributed to, to a significant degree, by the employee’s employment (section 5B). For coverage to exist, a determining authority would need to be satisfied that the employment significantly contributed to the employee contracting the virus. For viruses, it can be difficult to determine the exact time and place of contraction accurately. As a result, it may be challenging to establish that employment significantly contributed to the virus.

However, where an employee’s employment puts them at greater risk of contracting the virus, the significant contribution test may be easier to meet. For example, if the employment involves:

  • travel to an area with a known viral outbreak
  • activities that include engagement or interaction with people who have contracted the virus
  • activities that contravene Department of Health recommendations.

Each claim would need to be considered on its individual merits, having regard to the individual circumstances and evidence in relation to the claim.

While business owners and leaders are operating in an environment of heightened stress and anxiousness, their success ultimately depends on following government guidelines and being as prepared as possible.

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