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Understanding COVID-19 risks in your workplace

COVID–19 is ahealth and safety risk. Employers have obligations to ensure the health and safety of workers and others. They must have a plan on what will be done to protect and support workers, and health and safety representatives (HSRs) must be consulted on this plan. 

There are several factors that make protecting workers from contracting coronavirus and being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, difficult:

  • The virus is transmitted from infected people who may have no symptoms or before they develop symptoms i.e. they don’t know they are infected
  • There is no specific treatment that kills the virus once it is replicating in our bodies – Doctors are investigating use of some medicines that may shorten someone’s stay in hospital but there is no cure
  • Whilst many workers will experience mild symptoms, some workers, including more vulnerable workers (such as older workers and workers with pre-existing health issues) may experience more severe symptoms
  • A significant number of people become very ill who may takes weeks to months to recover

COVID-19 can be fatal.

Given these factors we need to take a high level of precaution, as people’s lives depend on it – an essential precaution is physical distancing.

Employers/PCBUs are legally required to consult with workers and their HSRs when identifying hazards at work and applying and reviewing control measures. Improving methods to prevent the spread of coronavirus will be much more effective when workers and their HSRs are asked for input and those ideas are considered.

Your health and safety rights

Every worker has the right to healthy and safe work. Elected Health and Safety Representatives [HSRs] also have powers and rights under health and safety law.

If you feel immediately unsafe at work, you can stop the unsafe work – but you must be available for other safe duties. Before taking this action, talk to your union delegate and HSR. 

HSRs have the power to direct work to cease if there is an immediate or imminent risk to health and safety. Everyone must be available to perform alternate safe duties and if they can, HSRs must try to consult with management before issuing the cases work. HSRs may also Issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) requiring the PCBU/employer to take certain actions.  HSRs must have consulted with the PCBU/employer about the health and safety issue.

Under WHS law these rights exist only after the HSR has attended an approved training course. So, training is essential. In Victoria HSRs have these rights as soon as they are elected, regardless of whether they have been trained.

The best way to prevent harm

As with any other risk, employers/PCBUs must consider how to implement the most reliable ways to prevent harm. This should involve the application of the hierarchy of controls (diagram below), which requires priority to be placed on the elimination of hazards, or isolation of people from exposure to harm where possible, with lower order administrative controls which focus on individual worker behaviours or the application of PPE, only applied where higher order controls are not possible. Applying the hierarchy of controls to COVID-19 may require multiple measures to be implemented in a workplace.

Elimination and substitution

Isolation – this is where the hazard and workers are isolated from each other. In the case of SARS-COV-2 this is keeping our distance – physical distancing – in time and space. The intent of physical distancing is to limit person to person contact – 1.5 metres between people and if indoors, one person per 4 square metres.

Working remotely – this may be working from home or working at a different location where there are fewer people and it is easier to implement the distance of 1.5 metres between people. These options are likely to require the lengthening of time to carry out tasks, e.g. reducing the number of people working on any one task at a time. This will require a clear consideration of increased workload or work intensification.

Physical distancing will not be practicable for many workers, e.g. frontline workers caring or working with people or where task or safety requirements require more than one-person, e.g. equipment operation, confined space entry, working at heights etc. In most of these circumstances, control measures will rely on infection control measures through changing the way people work and the use of personal protective gear.

Paradoxically, some industries and workplaces will need to hire more workers to deal with increased workloads.

Working at a distance – if remote working or working from home is not practicable, the employer /PCBU must take measures to implement physical distancing (to 1.5 metres and, if indoors, 4 square metres per person). Here are some examples to assist when deciding what are the best measures for your work:

  • Workstations moved or rearranged to keep people from being closer than 1.5 metres and in enclosed rooms with more than 1 person – every 4 square metres
  • Small work teams and limits or restrictions on mixing between teams
  • Perform tasks at different times when less people are around. This should be done by agreement with workers as changes to hours or locations could create other hazards, including psychosocial hazards
  • Control handovers between shifts to minimise contact
  • Divide and separate critical personnel and teams – via location, shift structures or onsite protocols
  • Allocate work so that fewer workers are required to be in the one place at the same time
  • Minimise and conduct work gatherings outside where people are not expected to be in close contact
  • Change the flow or direction of people to decrease contact, e.g. ensure entrances and exits are separate, change how people move around the site
  • Limit to one the number of people in vehicles or small spaces – without introducing other safety hazards
  • Work at a slower pace so that less workers need to physically interact with each other
  • Use technology to decrease contact between workers
  • Change the timing and location of breaks to make sure 1.5 metres of separation is achievable. This should be done by agreement with workers. Workers must be given the appropriate breaks as per normal according to awards and enterprise agreements – it is very important not to increase fatigue and other hazards
  • Provide room calculators to make it easier to follow the four-square metre rule

Limiting face to face contact is essential in preventing the spread of the virus. Essential precautions are physical distancing and good ventilation. Employers/PCBU’s should consider and review a combination of the following controls:

Engineering controls:

  • Use equipment which increases the distance between people or decreases the time that people must be close together – without introducing other safety hazards
  • Good indoor ventilation is essential. Improved air circulation is important e.g open windows or increased outdoor intake for air-conditioning systems intake. In some settings, like health care, negative air pressure rooms and other forms of specialist ventilation systems are necessary. See below.
  • Minimise close contact with colleagues, customers and clients including minimising cash transactions and the need to exchange paperwork and other materials.

Improve ventilation:

As coronavirus is spread by breathing in contaminated air, clean air inside a building is essential. There are several ways to improve air quality – for example: 

  • increase the amount of outside air by opening windows,
  • for air conditioning systems, increase the air exchange rate which is the measure of the number of times the air inside a building gets replaced with air from outside in an hour and
  • if it’s not possible to do either of these things use of a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.

The actual air exchange rate will depend upon on number of people and size of the area.

For health care settings there are specific ventilation requirements for isolation rooms, including negative pressure rooms.

CO2 levels can be used to estimate whether the air in a room is stale and potentially full of particles containing the coronavirus. The outside air we breathe is about 300-500 ppm of CO2.  The indoor CO2 level is an indicator of how much fresh air is circulating. CO2 is not a measure of whether there is any virus in the air.

Ventilation exhaust outlets need to be avoided, as people will breathe in contaminated air – as a minimum use warning signs if exhaust outlets are near pedestrian areas.

Expert assistance is required to ensure that air exchange rates and filtration systems remove contaminants, limit the circulation of contaminated air and keep levels of CO2 down.

Both the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that poor ventilation increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

Cleaning and disinfection:

  • Improve and increase cleaning especially of shared areas, facilities like washrooms and meal areas, tools and equipment, all hard surfaces. This should include in between shifts or where new workers are entering an area
  • Additional pop-up handwashing stations or facilities, providing soap, water and Health Department approved hand sanitiser in as many spots as possible
  • All workers must be given the time and access to the facilities and equipment needed to protect themselves and others.

Personal protective equipment

Depending on the work this will include eye protection, respiratory protection, clothing, gloves etc. Protective equipment must not be shared between people and as much as possible not reused.

The Health Department provides advice about workers who need PPE, the type of PPE required and for what tasks.

Proper cleaning of PPE is essential.

If possible, don’t wear work clothes home. Never shake out clothing before placing in the washing machine and use the hot/warm wash cycle. Employers should provide laundering facilities for workers to wash uniforms, especially where close contact with others has occurred in the workplace.

Training and information

For these controls, employers/PCBUs have obligations to train, supervise and provide workers with information to enable working in a healthy and safe manner to prevent the spread of coronavirus and protect everyone from COVID-19.

Workers and their HSRs must be consulted about all measures being taken and HSRs have the right to request a review of risk controls.

Links to government advice

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