As we move closer to full reopening in Victoria and NSW, the challenge for businesses is how to reopen safely. Open-plan offices, common areas such as meeting rooms and kitchens, hot-desking and the importance of air ventilation are factors that impact the risk of COVID-19 being transmitted in the office. But for all businesses across Australia, even those not under lockdown, the key emerging issue is the impact on safety, if any, of the interaction between unvaccinated workers and visitors.
So what can employers do to minimise this risk and maintain a safe workplace?
For those businesses that are currently subject to public health orders, the issue is largely out of their hands for the duration of the operation of the order. Those orders variously require businesses to ensure that unvaccinated workers and visitors (other than those with a medical exemption) do not attend the workplace – either across all businesses (such as in NSW) or for various roles (as in Victoria and the Northern Territory). Last month, the Northern Territory announced a vaccine mandate covering all public-facing roles, including those likely to come into contact with a vulnerable person.
Up until now, businesses, particularly those in COVID-19-affected areas, have been able to rely on the expert medical health advice of the government health departments that underpin these orders. As the nation moves to reopening due to hitting vaccination targets, however, the medical advice regarding the integration of the vaccinated and unvaccinated public seems unclear. On the one hand, businesses are currently under stringent orders not to allow unvaccinated workers to the workplace. Then, it appears, after a nominated date, unimpeded mixing of the population will be allowed in mainstream areas of life such as pubs, schools and restaurants.
So, what does this mean going forward if the orders do not restrict interaction between vaccinated and unvaccinated workers and visitors? Does this mean your business should also allow all unvaccinated workers and visitors to your worksite?
The obligation to ensure safety at the workplace is the responsibility of the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU). But what information should your business rely on in coming to a view on whether it should allow all unvaccinated workers and visitors to your worksite? As with the decision about whether to mandate vaccinations, the considerations in this type of risk assessment are very similar.
In essence, your business needs to undertake a risk assessment of the transmission of COVID-19 at the workplace, importantly noting the level of vaccination within your workforce at the time of reopening and any available medical advice (either government or independent) that applies to your industry and workforce.
Putting aside whether the government has mandated your workforce be vaccinated, the risk assessment factors that should be taken into account include whether:
Other factors that may be taken into consideration in the risk assessment include assessing whether:
With many nations ahead of Australia, it is instructive to see the approaches that they have adopted.
In various European jurisdictions, including Germany, France, England and Ireland, implementation and enforcement of safe working environment processes are also important. Some examples include:
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Authors: Michael Selinger & Adrian Zagami
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