What COVID-safe practices should a business implement if their workers cannot work from home? Rob Jackson explains.

As COVID-19 infection rates drop dramatically, Victorians welcome back normality. Or something close to it. Since 11:59pm, 8 November, metropolitan Melbourne entered the third stage of reopening, in line with regional Victoria.

Manufacturers, like all employers, must be vigilant in managing COVID risks before re-opening the doors. Manufacturing workers cannot work from home, and the layout of a factory may make physical distancing difficult to achieve. So, what should a business do?

Get a COVIDSafe Plan!

Every Victorian workplace must have a COVIDSafe Plan based on six key principles:

  1. Physical distancing, where work is performed 1.5m apart, and the 4sqm rule is applied. Continue to work from home, if possible.
  2. Wear face masks with the provision of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). An employee must wear face masks.
  3. Good hygiene practices by supplying effective sanitiser, ensuring frequent surface cleaning.
  4. Keep records of all people (workers, visitors, customers, suppliers) who enter the workplace.
  5. Avoid interaction in enclosed spaces, and where possible enhance air flow.
  6. Create workforce bubbles to minimise cross-infection between the workforce, staggering work start and finish times, and lunch breaks.

A manufacturer within metropolitan Melbourne must also keep cleaning logs, provide PPE training, ensure daily cleaning for all areas accessed by workers and clean between shifts. A worker must declare they are free of COVID symptoms before starting work.

Further, manufacturing is one of seven designated ‘high risk’ industry sectors. The other five are closely related to manufacturing: warehousing, supermarket and chilled distribution, postal, and wholesale. The remaining sector is the care industry. All sectors, apart from manufacturing, must have a High Risk COVIDSafe Plan, unless involved in meat and seafood processing.  Construction, pharmaceutical and medical suppliers are no longer considered high risk industries.

A new initiative is the COVID Marshal to ensure somebody has specific responsibility for complying with a COVIDSafe Plan. Marshals must be appointed to all Victorian abattoirs and meat processing facilities, and to all Melbourne-based supermarket and chilled distribution centres. Also, public gyms, casino and gaming facilities must have COVID Marshals. For all other sectors, such as manufacturing, a COVID Marshal is recommended. A COVID Marshal must do what any safety-conscious business should already be doing – proactively managing workplace safety.

To support manufacturers in their return to work preparation, in addition to information on numerous websites and telephone support lines, free accredited infection control training has been made available to employers in a high-risk industry.

Day one

A business should induct returning workers as if they are new starters and this includes all employees: casuals, part-timers, volunteers, labour hire employees, and also contractors.

The return presents a valuable opportunity to consult and discuss safety. Keep attendance records; ensure individual responsibilities are clearly allocated in writing concerning for example hygiene practices and face masks, distancing in the lunchroom, visitor protocol, keeping a register.

Workers will be distressed by lengthy absences from workplace due to social isolation, family responsibilities, childcare, elderly parents, family discord and many other factors.

An employer must anticipate these risks, and have counselling services available. Psychological risks are as important as the physical risks, and form an important part of a business’ risk management strategy.

Poor management practices will increase legal risks such as bullying or WorkCover claims. It is important supervisors and managers are supported to look after their own health, before they try and deal with an employee’s distress displayed in the workplace.

Thanks, but I’ll stay at home and won’t come back!

Working from home has benefits: no commuting, no interruptions, no risk of infection. Or, carer or family responsibilities may dictate staying at home, prompting a request for flexible working arrangements under the National Employment Standards.

Or a business may restructure its business model to rely on home-based working. This may give rise to an obligation to consult under an award or enterprise agreement. Checking and updating the employment contract is also wise.

Not feeling well

A sick employee, however minor the symptoms, must stay away from workplace, and obtain medical advice. An employer may provide financial support, or seek government assistance.

An employer has an obligation under section 22 Occupational Health and Safety Act to monitor the health of employees and workplace conditions, and provide information in appropriate languages. An employer must not turn a blind eye.

And if there is a positive case, an employer since 28 July 2020 must notify WorkSafe of a ‘confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis’ by calling WorkSafe immediately on 13 23 60, and submitting a written notification within two days. Fines can be imposed for a failure to notify.

Future trends

There is no going back to the pre-COVID normal workplace! Employers and workers have learnt what can be achieved away from the workplace, leading to a questioning of what the post-COVID workplace will look like.  The Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling for a right to Work From Home, relying on a recently published survey of 10,000 employees. Enterprise bargaining is likely to see such clauses negotiated.

A manufacturer will need to stay a step or two ahead on safety, and not just perform the minimum required by law.

What will your business do? Think now, and consider not only the risk of infection in its own right, but also of the human effect, on workers holistically as part of a risk management system.

Rob Jackson is a Partner in Rigby Cooke’s Workplace Relations, International Business and Manufacturing groups. Rob has extensive experience in employment and industrial relations, occupational health & safety, workplace investigations and employment related migration.

Ph: + 61 3 9321 7808; E: RJackson@rigbycooke.com.au