23 Mar Do I need a Coronavirus Policy?
As you are probably very well aware, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has now hit the Australian mainland with a few cases now being reported across random parts of Australia, in some instances, there have been employees suspected of having come in contact with the Coronavirus and entire organisations are sending staff home immediately due to the threat of the spread. Should you consider having a Coronavirus policy for your business and employees?
This is an unprecedented event and employers are having to get up to speed very quickly on their obligations and what to do in various scenarios.
We will keep this page updated with developments and the legal impacts for business as this develops.
At this stage the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has activated a pandemic plan ahead of what is going to be almost certainly a massive health issue over the next 6 months at the very least in Australia.
While there are currently only a small number of cases in Australia at this point, we are expecting that to change over the next few days, weeks and months as the virus spreads. For most, it appears that the symptoms may be mild, however it is the speed of the virus, the infection rate and potential issues for those more vulnerable that is the real issue, as well as the impact it is going to have on businesses and the economy over the next estimated 10 months.
It appears as if it may just simply be a matter of time before your employees contract the coronavirus or come in contact with someone who has it, so it is advisable to have an infectious diseases policy in place with infectious control guidelines.
We strongly advise you to have a policy or statement in place that deals with the coronavirus for your business. It should include:
- The steps employees need to take if they feel symptoms;
- Their positive obligations if they come in contact with someone later known to have contracted the coronavirus;
- Reporting arrangements;
- Working from home arrangements;
- Business travel guidelines; and
- Hygiene reminders and statements.
Workplace health and safety and the coronavirus – your obligations as an employer
From an employer’s perspective, you have a positive obligation to your employees and contractors and their families to make sure that if someone within the organisation contracts the coronavirus, then you need to take the necessary steps to contain the spread of that disease.
What it really boils down to is health and safety and legally you should implement systems, strategies and policies to protect your employees from possible health and safety risks and to ensure you meet your obligations as an employer.
Under section 19 of the Work Health and Safety Act, 2011 (Cth), you, as an employer, have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of your employees. This would include reducing or eliminating any potential exposure to coronavirus in the workplace.
It’s strongly advisable to update or create a new policy that outlines the actions your company is taking to protect employees from the coronavirus and other infectious diseases.
This policy should include reference to the following matters:
1. What to do if your employees have symptoms
The symptoms of the coronavirus include a fever, flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and fatigue and shortness of breath. Find for information on the virus here.
You need to emphasise to your employees or contractors that if they experience these symptoms, they must report it immediately to the appropriate responsible person within your organisation if they are experiencing the symptoms and not to delay.
If any of your staff are displaying these symptoms or have recently travelled to any country considered high risk, or have come into contact with someone who has contracted the coronavirus, you should consider directing them to stay at home for at least 14 days and ask them to seek medical advice, go to emergency if their symptoms worsen and obtain a clearance from a doctor before returning to work.
2. Positive obligation of employees and contractors
You should also inform your staff of their positive obligations to notify the appropriate responsible person if they come in contact with someone who has contracted the coronavirus, so that you can put proper and adequate steps in place to protect the rest of the company and staff from further exposure to the virus.
As a precautionary measure, these employees should be asked to stay home for a period of 14 days, even if they are not displaying signs of the virus and to provide clearance from a doctor before returning to work.
Staff need to be reminded about proper hygiene practices as well to prevent risk of the spread of infection.
You should require any employee who has travelled to China or a country considered on the list to be high risk in the last 14 days or who has come into contact with someone who has contracted the virus to stay home for a period of 14 days, whether or not they are showing symptoms or not and ask them to seek medical advice and provide clearance from a doctor before returning to work.
4. Working from home arrangements
There is a possibility that a significant number of your staff could be home sick with the coronavirus.
Since the symptoms of the virus itself are relatively mild for individuals who aren’t considered vulnerable, like young children or the elderly, your staff may be able to continue working while they stay home recovering.
You should consider whether you are set up for people to work remotely, have access to your servers and are equipped with laptops.
You should also consider implementing a working from home policy.
5. Reporting obligations
It should be made a requirement that employees should report to the appropriate responsible person any information relevant to protecting other employees from contracting the coronavirus.
This would include reporting if an employee overheard that another employee has symptoms or had recently had symptoms or come in contact with someone having symptoms, or travelled to a high risk country, but is still working in the office.
In regards to meetings with third parties not employed by your business, you should make it known that face-to-face meetings with any person who has travelled to a high risk country in the last 14 days are not permitted. A video or telephone conference call could be a useful alternative to conduct the meeting.
You should inform your staff that they must not invite these people to the office under any circumstances.
7. Business travel
There are several countries that are currently considered high risk for contracting the virus.
These countries include China, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Iran.
Business trips to these countries should be avoided at all costs. The policy should state that employees are not to travel to these counties until further notice. You should stay abreast of any new countries that become high risk.
There are also other countries that are not considered high risk, but still risky to travel to, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand. It would be wise to prevent employees from travelling to these countries for work as well.
8. Attending large conferences
If any staff are planning on attending conferences (whether for work, or leisure), you may consider requesting leave to be approved first before attending any such conference and you may decide to implement a policy of any members of staff not to attend a large conference, and particularly not in those high risk countries.
You may also consider whether all work travel arrangements might be suspended until further notice and consideration given on a case-by-case basis.
9. Hygiene reminders and statements
A statement should be prepared communicating to staff what is expected in terms of proper hygiene standards at the workplace.
This would include encouraging staff to cover their nose and mouth when they sneeze or cough, wash their hands thoroughly and wipe down any shared computers with anti-bacterial wipes.
Signs of examples of proper hygiene should be clearly displayed in the lobby, kitchen area and any other common area.
10. Stay informed
It is important to stay informed of any updates or developments of the coronavirus and its presence in Australia. You can access current updates and further information about the virus here.
Article written by Ian Aldridge, Principal Lawyer Director and Gabriela Pesantez Laharnar, Junior Lawyer. © Progressive Legal Pty Ltd (2020) All legal rights reserved. – last updated 6 March 2020
Contact us today if you require any assistance with Workplace Law advice.
Ian Aldridge is the Founder and Principal Lawyer Director at Progressive Legal. He has over 15 years experience in advising businesses in Australia and the UK. After practising in commercial litigation for 12 years in major Australian and International Law Firms, he decided to set up a NewLaw law firm in Australia and assist growing Australian businesses. Since then, he has advised over 2,500 small businesses over the past 6 years alone in relation to Intellectual Property Law, Commercial, Dispute Resolution, Workplace and Privacy Law. He has strived to build a law firm that takes a different approach to providing legal services. A truly client-focused law firm, Ian has built Progressive Legal that strives to deliver on predictable costs, excellent communication and care for his clients. As a legal pioneer, Ian has truly changed the way legal services are being provided in Australia, by building Legal Shield™, a legal subscription to obtain tailored legal documents and advice in a front-loaded retainer package, a world-first. He has a double degree in Law (Hons) and Economics (with a marketing major). He was admitted to the Supreme Court of NSW in 2005.