During the unprecedented time of COVID-19 there are many unanswered questions. To help you and your business come out the other side of this worldwide pandemic we’ve recruited Gillian Bristow, Legal Practitioner Director of Bristow Legal, to provide you with useful information.
What duties to I owe to my employees during a pandemic?
All Australian states and territories have legislation that sets out your WHS obligations as an employer. In general terms, you are required to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of your workplace and your employees/contractors.
As a transport operator you will recognise that this terminology is very similar to the obligations that are owed under Chain of Responsibility laws.
How do I go about complying with my duties under WHS law?
As an employer, you must work out the risks that your employees/contractors are exposed to and find ways of eliminating or minimising those risks. The road transport industry is particularly at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic because drivers and others in warehouses can’t isolate themselves at home and are travelling between various sites and interacting with others in the course of deliveries and when purchasing fuel.
It is important that you have a plan to respond to issues associated with the pandemic. Any plan should involve, at a minimum:
1. consulting with your workforce;
2. making sure employees have been given clear guidelines about what to do if they are ordered to isolate, have been exposed to COVID-19, or if they are feeling unwell;
3. reviewing and updating procedures with respect to hygiene, cleaning and social distancing; and
4. continually monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and reviewing directions and guidance issued by public health authorities and other government bodies.
Consultation is especially important, both legally and practically. Communicating with your team will help you understand how best to minimise risks and to support and assist them. It is also vital that your team know both who to call and when to call if they have issues related to COVID-19. WHS extends beyond keeping your employees virus free, it also includes their mental wellbeing during what is a stressful time for everyone. You can read more about mental health here.
What are some of the specific measures my transport business could introduce to minimise COVID-19 risks?
Safe Work Australia recently published guidelines to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission for the road freight and warehousing and logistics industries.
Some of the recommendations include:
1. limit physical interactions between workers, suppliers, customers and others;
2. prohibit drivers travelling with passengers; and
3. use electronic paperwork where possible and use alternative methods to a signature (such as photos with time stamps) as proof of delivery.
At your depot/warehouse
1. postpone non-essential work, gatherings and training;
2. eliminate or limit visitor attendance;
3. direct visiting vehicle drivers to stay in their vehicles;
4. reduce the number of workers using common areas at a given time (e.g. by staggering meal breaks and start times);
5. make sure furniture in any common areas is appropriately spaced;
6. use electronic methods such as mobile phone or radio to communicate;
7. increase the frequency and extent of cleaning services; and
8. place signage about physical distancing around the workplace.
On the road and at customer premises
1. monitor the availability of facilities and plan routes to take best advantage of the facilities that are available; and
2. ensure workers have hand sanitiser and other necessary PPE available.
I have employees working from home because of the various government directives. Should I be concerned about their health and safety?
The pandemic does not absolve your WHS responsibilities for employees who are working from home.
To meet your obligations to your ‘at home workforce’ you should consider the risks associated with their work and how you can minimise those risks. The sorts of issues you could consider include:
1. providing guidance on how to set up an appropriate workstation;
2. making sure each employee is in an appropriate environment – consider heat, cold, lighting, electrical safety and security. Perhaps you could use a checklist that asks your employees to consider all these issues and report back to you. An example checklist published by Worksafe Queensland is available here;
3. ensuring that you communicate effectively such as by keeping in regular contact by phone, email, video linkup or Skype; and
4. having a nominated point of contact if employees have any concerns arising from their working from home arrangements or any other aspect of the current pandemic.
One of my employees has tested positive to COVID-19. What should I do?
If your employee has tested positive for COVID-19, you must contact the relevant health authority for advice and follow that advice. Your employee should not be allowed to be at the workplace. Here’s a diagram from Safe Work Australia that explains what is required.
It is important that you follow the advice of health officials to the letter. You also need to make sure that anyone who is in contact with the employee who has, or is suspected of having, COVID-19 is provided with appropriate PPE such as a mask and gloves.
While it is important to inform workers who may have been exposed about the diagnosis, you should maintain confidentiality unless advised otherwise by the relevant health authority (you do not need to tell your employees the name of the person who has been diagnosed). Your employees should already have been told that if they develop symptoms or are concerned about their health, they should seek immediate medical advice.
Each state health authority has published online resources that are available to help you manage COVID-19 risks in your workplace. The relevant website links are in the table below.
In general terms, WHS laws also require you to notify the relevant state regulator if someone suffers a serious illness that requires hospitalisation where there is a connection between the illness and the workplace. This requirement is only likely to be relevant if your employee contracted COVID-19 as a result of community transmission because of tasks they undertook while working for you. The contact details for the various authorities and their websites are set out in the table below.
WHS authorities and their contact information
Gillian has provided advice to the road transport industry for more than 25 years. She regularly presents to industry conferences and seminars, and writes a column for the magazine ‘Power Torque’. Gillian has previously worked with NTI to provide guidance material on chain of responsibility obligations and with the Australian Trucking Association to prepare a checklist for reviewing transport contracts.
Prepared 6 April 2020. Please note that this publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should consider obtaining advice that is specific to your circumstances and should not rely upon this publication as legal advice.