COVID-19 in the workplace: frequently asked questions
The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace. This includes providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risk to health and safety and adequate facilities for workers in carrying out their work, so far as is reasonably practicable.
To comply with the model WHS laws, you must identify risks at the workplace, and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate those risks, or where this is not reasonably practicable, to minimise those risks.
Whether a control measure is reasonably practicable to implement involves considering what can be done to control a risk and whether it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so. Key considerations in determining what measures are reasonable include:
- the likelihood of the risk occurring
- the degree of harm that might result
- the availability and suitability of a control measure
The likelihood of the risk occurring, the degree of harm that might result and the availability and suitability of a control measure are key considerations in determining what measures are reasonable. Further information is available in the model Code of Practice: Managing the work environment and facilities.
To do this, you should keep up to date with the latest COVID-19 information and advice to ensure that any action taken is appropriate. This includes closely monitoring the information provided by the Australian Government Department of Health, the Smartraveller website and advice from state or territory government agencies, including health departments and WHS regulators. See the Information and Resources section below for links to these agencies.
You will not be able to completely eliminate the risk of workers contracting COVID-19 while carrying out work. However you must do all that is reasonably practicable to minimise that risk.
What control measures will be reasonably practicable will depend on the work being carried out by workers and particular workplaces. Generally, you should:
- determine appropriate control measures in consultation with workers, their representatives and taking account of official information sources (see below for further information on consultation)
- implement those measures and clearly communicate them to all workers, including providing clear direction and guidance about what is expected of workers
- workers should know when to stay away from the workplace
- what action to take if they become unwell
- what symptoms to be concerned about
- continually monitor relevant information sources and update control measures when and if necessary
- employers should continue to provide information to workers, including changes to control measures, as the situation develops
- provide workers with continued access to official government sources for current information and advice
- provide workers with appropriate personal protective equipment and facilities, and information and training on how and why they are required to use them
- require workers to practice good hygiene, including:
- frequent hand washing
- limiting contact with others, including through shaking hands
- covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing
- require workers to stay away from the workplace if they are unwell and not fit for work, and encourage them to seek medical advice as appropriate
- seek advice from health authorities immediately if there has been a confirmed case of COVID-19 in your workplace
- limit access to the workplace by other people, unless necessary
- reconsider work-related travel and implement other methods of communication
- for example, rather than requiring employees to undertake air travel to attend face to face meetings, facilitate attendance by tele or videoconference
- remind workers that they have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and to not adversely affect the health and safety of others
- provide workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns, and access to support services, including employee assistance programs
- allow workers to access available entitlements in line with obligations under any applicable enterprise agreement, award, employees’ contracts of employment, and workplace policies
For information about workplace entitlements and obligations, go to the Fair Work Ombudsman web page Coronavirus and Australian workplace laws, or call the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94 - select the prompt for the Coronavirus hotline.
Specific questions about COVID-19
- When discussing health and safety matters with workers, a consultative approach must be taken to allow workers to express views before any decision is made.
- Participation of your workers in discussions about health and safety is important, as they are most likely to know about the risks of their work. Joint involvement in identifying hazards and assessing and controlling workplace risks will help build worker commitment to this process and any changes that may result.
- The model Code of Practice: Work health and safety consultation, cooperation and coordination can give you more information about your duties to consult.
The effects of COVID-19 are being felt in workplaces across NSW. During these difficult times, HSRs play an important role in the health and safety of workers.
If you are a health and safety representative, this is our advice.
- Promote the simple but effective social distancing and hygiene measures communicated by state and federal authorities.
- Raise any concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19 immediately with the employer and work with them to identify solutions. Learn more
- Monitor the extent of COVID-19 in your community and share advice from state and federal authorities regularly.
- NSW Government 's Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice hub for advice and information for community and businesses.
- Australian Government Department of Health for the latest information in relation to the spread and clinical management of the disease.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has published guidance on how to protect privacy while ensuring safety.
What should an employer do if they cannot get supplies of real or perceived necessities (e.g. hand sanitiser, masks)?
Under the model WHS laws, employers must do everything that is reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk of a worker contracting COVID-19 at the workplace, or where this is not reasonably practicable, they must minimise the risk of a worker contracting COVID-19 at the workplace. This means employers must provide a work environment that is without risk to health and safety, including access to facilities for good hygiene such as adequate supply of soap, water and toilet paper; and make sure these are kept clean, properly stocked and in good working order.
If those supplies are not available, for the purposes of the model WHS laws, it would not be reasonably practicable for an employer to provide them. For example:
- If there are no supplies of masks in Australia, an employer cannot be required, to provide a mask. In those circumstances, an employer should consider what alternative measures or approaches can be taken to eliminate or minimise risk.
- If there are no supplies of hand sanitiser, a PCBU should consider providing access to soap rather than hand sanitiser.
Ultimately however, if an employer is unable to obtain necessary supplies to provide a work environment that is without risks, they should consider whether the risks posed to workers and others at the workplace are so great that workers should not be required to attend the workplace and perform work. This will need to be determined on a case by case basis.
General COVID-19 information on surgical masks and who should use surgical mask has been published by the Australian Government Department of Health. Current advice from Department of Health is that surgical masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus disease from spreading it to others. Surgical masks are not currently recommended for healthy members of the public to prevent COVID-19.
Face masks are not recommended for the general population.
People who have symptoms and might be infected with COVID-19 are required to stay in isolation at home and should wear a surgical face mask when in the same room as another person and when seeking medical advice to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to anyone else.
Health care workers who are caring for patients with suspected COVID-19 should use appropriate personal protective equipment to protect themselves against COVID-19. For more information refer to Clinical Excellence Commission (CEC) - Coronavirus COVID-19.
My workers may come into close contact with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. Should the workers use personal protective equipment (PPE)?
If a worker may come into close contact with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, employers must put in place control measures to eliminate or minimise the risk of a worker contracting the virus so far as reasonably practicable.
Risk management may involve the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) including gloves, eye protection and face masks. However PPE must not be the only control measure that employers consider. By itself PPE will not control the transmission of COVID-19.
PPE should supplement higher level control measures such as isolation controls (e.g. Rideshare services requiring that passengers sit in the rear seat to maintain social distancing, or removing the requirement for people to sign for deliveries).
For further information on risk management, see the model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks. For further information about PPE including additional employer obligations can be found at personal protective equipment.
When can an employer direct a worker to stay away from their usual place of work under the model WHS laws?
There is nothing in the model WHS laws that deals expressly with when an employer may direct a worker to stay away from their usual place of work. This includes when you can direct a worker to work from another workplace, including from home. Note: the model WHS laws have been implemented in all jurisdictions except Victoria and Western Australia.
However, the model WHS laws require you, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace. To meet this duty, you must identify risks at the workplace, and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate those risks, or where this is not reasonably practicable, to minimise those risks.
For example, you may undertake a risk assessment and form the view, based on all the available information from health authorities and having consulted with your workers, that an appropriate control measure to eliminate or minimise a risk to workers and/or other people at the usual workplace, is to require workers and other people to stay away from the usual place of work. Depending on the circumstances, you might also determine that it is appropriate for workers to work from another location, including their home.
For other employers this approach may not be reasonably practicable (e.g. a workplace that relies on specialised plant or equipment) but there might be other controls that would minimise the risk of infection such as implementing other forms of social distancing or delaying non-essential tasks. There is no one size fits all approach.
The important thing is that you actively consider the context of your business or undertaking, the specifics of your workplace and all the workers and others to whom you owe a WHS duty and take every step you reasonably can to eliminate or minimise any risks to health and safety.
Of course, if you know a worker is confirmed to have COVID-19, you should ensure that the worker does not return to work while they are infectious. If you notice a worker exhibiting other signs they may be unwell (e.g. frequent sneezing) and you consider they are unfit for work, you should follow your usual workplace policies and procedures. This may include directing the worker to go home.
What else should an employer take into account when deciding whether a worker or other people need to stay away from their usual place of work?
To inform any decisions about attendance at the usual place of work, you should:
- consult with affected workers and their representatives and, where relevant, Health and Safety Representatives
- consider what workplace or other laws might prevent the action being taken
- keep up-to-date with information about the risk and appropriate control measures such as official information sources and guidance materials
- seek advice specific to your circumstances, including from employee and employer organisations and legal providers
Sometimes controlling or minimising one risk to health and safety may mean that additional safety risks emerge that must also be eliminated or minimised. For example, if you direct workers to work from home, consider what other steps you may need to take to keep workers safe because your WHS duties will still apply if your workers are performing work at home. The Managing the work environment and facilities Code of Practice contains a work environment and facilities checklist (see Appendix B) that you may wish to use to ensure any alternate work environment and facilities are suitable.
In Australia, the model WHS laws still apply to all businesses if workers are required to work somewhere other than their usual workplace, for example, working from home. In this instance employers must still ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers. The worker also has a responsibility to take reasonable care for his or her own health and safety, including complying with reasonable instruction given by the employer or any policy and procedures provided.
Even in challenging circumstances such as this pandemic there are still measures employers can take to minimise physical and psychosocial risks when workers are working from home. For example:
- providing workers with guidance on what a good workstation set-up looks like
- requiring workers to familiarise themselves with good ergonomic practices, and requiring them to comply with them, for example by referring to a self-assessment checklist
- maintaining daily communication with workers through phone, email or skype, and
- providing continued access to an employee assistance program and appointing a contact person in the business that workers can talk to about any concerns.
Working from home may change, increase or create work health or safety risks. Consultation with workers about working from home and the home environment is important.
Risks that an employer should consider include:
- workstation set up
- work hours and breaks
- physical environment such as heat, cold, lighting, electrical safety, home hygiene and home renovations
- psychosocial risks such as isolation, reduced social support from managers and colleagues, fatigue, online harassment, domestic violence.
For more information about how to work safely from home, please refer to the following links:
Do I need a medical certificate clearing me for work, school, university or other settings? (NSW Health)
No. If you do not have any symptoms there is no testing that can be done to predict whether or not you will become unwell. It is not possible to issue a ‘medical clearance certificate’.
Once 14 days have passed since you returned from overseas, you have passed the time in which you would become sick if you were exposed to COVID-19. If you are still completely well 14 days after you arrived then you will not get COVID-19 from your time overseas, and you can cease self-isolation and return to work, school and university.
My work is saying that I need to get tested for COVID-19 as I have travelled recently - what should I do? (NSW Health)
There is no need for you to be tested unless you develop fever, cough, runny nose, and shortness of breath or other symptoms and have travelled overseas in the 14 days before developing symptoms. You should see your GP or visit your local Emergency Department to be tested for COVID-19. If you are visiting your GP, please call ahead beforehand and tell them where you have travelled. You should self-isolate and exclude yourself from work until your test result is available.
If you are become unwell with these symptoms without travel you should see your local GP and discuss your symptoms. There are other illnesses such as influenza that your GP may wish to test you for that can cause your symptoms.
Industry specific advice
For information and resources for health professionals including aged care providers, pathology providers and healthcare managers on coronavirus (COVID-19) visit health.gov.au
For information and resources on handling of bodies by funeral directors visit NSW Health
Information for hotel management and staff about coronavirus (COVID-19) visit health.gov.au
Drivers of public transport, including taxis, ride-hail services, trains, buses and trams, are advised specific requirements are in place for people who have arrived from overseas, or have been in close contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus. Visit health.gov.au for more information.
For more information about the airline industry (including flight crew) and coronavirus (COVID-19) visit health.gov.au