Some information about coronavirus for business owners and employers
Over the last few weeks, Bespoke HR has been inundated with requests for information on how to handle the current alert of coronavirus potentially affecting the workplace, and tips on how to prevent its spread.
Although the risk within Australia at this point in time is minimal, it is important to remain informed and take hygiene practices seriously.
We advise you to calmly address your team and stakeholders and monitor any information coming to light in regards to the situation.
The main concern we have been aware of is an employer’s obligations for leave and interruptions to regular work due to illness.
Below is some information on how you can address some of the current queries and approach the prevention of illness in the workplace during this time.
What Is Coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by a new virus. Symptoms range from a mild cough to pneumonia. Some people recover easily, others may get very sick very quickly. There is evidence that it spreads from person to person. Good hygiene can prevent infection.
Why is there an alert?
On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The Australian Government has issued this health alert as a precaution, based on the latest and best medical advice.
What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia. Some people will recover easily, and others may get very sick very quickly. People with coronavirus may experience:
- flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and fatigue
- shortness of breath
Who is at risk?
Most cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) are in Wuhan City in Hubei Province, China.
In Australia, the people most at risk of getting the virus are those who have:
- recently been in mainland China and Iran
- been in close contact with someone who is a confirmed case of coronavirus
How it spreads
There is evidence that the virus spreads from person-to-person.
The virus is most likely spread through:
- close contact with an infectious person
- contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
- touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs or tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face
Everyone should practise good hygiene to protect against infections. Good hygiene includes:
- washing your hands often with soap and water
- using a tissue and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- avoiding close contact with others, such as touching
Surgical masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus disease from spreading it to others. If you are well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask as there is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent transmission in public.
What can we do in the workplace:
1. Educate and inform employees regarding hygiene practices
Calmly have a discussion with staff about the current risks, scenarios and strategies to ensure outbreaks are prevented. Discuss and educate on the importance of maintaining high levels of hygiene to prevent contamination in the workplace.
Some additional Health and Safety reminders and protocols that could be discussed and implemented (with care) if needed could be explaining with the current status accordingly the business is taking a stand to ensure everyone is comfortable and well within the workplace and as such we are adopting a few additional wellness/fit for work protocols over the next few weeks such as:
- Specifically requesting that staff consider everyone if they are unwell and do not attend the workplace when sick
- All staff to be continually aware of and practicing good hygiene habits when in the workplace (washing hands, sneezing into elbow or tissue not into hands, perhaps refraining from handshakes where appropriate)
- Ask everyone to be more aware of not touching eyes, nose, face (prevention practice)
- Ensure cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe
2. Encourage Staff to Stay home if unwell & limit travel
If staff members are feeling unwell, encourage them to stay home to prevent any spread of the potential virus, and encourage managers / senior leaders to send staff home if they appear to be unwell at work.
If an employee is unwell, we advise seeking GP advice. A 14 day clearance period should be acknowledged where appropriate for those displaying flu symptoms, coughing and other symptoms related to the coronavirus.
Limit business travel where possible, as well as exposure to places, locations or people who have been recently exposed to the virus.
3. Acknowledge employee requests to stay home
According to Fairwork, under work health and safety laws, employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace, therefore if there is a risk a staff member may have had the potential to contract the virus, it is obligatory they don’t put other employees at risk.
“If an employee is at risk of infection from coronavirus (for example, because the employee has recently travelled through mainland China, or has been in close contact with someone who has the virus), you should request the employee seek medical clearance from a doctor and to work from home (if possible), or not work during the risk period.” – Fairwork
We encourage employers and staff to work together to remain aware and monitor situations on a case by case basis.
4. Report any outbreaks or cases in the workplace.
In the rare case that an employee has indicated they have contracted the virus, it is important to notify authorities, out of obligation and as a mandatory requirement.
According to notifications indicated by FairWork, it is an obligation to report any cases to the appropriate health authorities.
5. Follow Fairwork practices if an employee is quarantined or required to not attend work.
If an employee is required to be quarantined and cannot attend work, they may be entitled to take paid sick leave.
According to Fairwork, they “do not have specific rules for these kinds of situations so employers need to come to their own arrangement”.
Fairwork suggest the following arrangements:
- Taking sick leave if the employee is sick
- Taking annual leave
- Taking any other leave available to them (such as long services leave or any other leave available under an award, enterprise agreement or contract of employment)
- Arranging any other paid or unpaid leave by arrangement between the employee and the employer.
“We encourage employees and employers to work together to find appropriate solutions that suit the needs of individual workplaces and staff. This may include taking different forms of leave, working from home, or taking extra precautions in the workplace.”
Some useful links:
Travel Advice – https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/
It is important to remain informed, aware and ensure staff and other stakeholders everything is being done in the business’ power to protect everyone’s health and safety at work.