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Perspective

Update: How to keep your business and people safe with the growing spread of the coronavirus

On 14 February 2020 FCW Lawyers published an article on managing the risks of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace.  The key takeaways from the article for employers were:

  • Request at-risk employees (employees who have recently visited China) to work remotely or take time off for 14 days; and
  • Provide employees training in relevant hygiene policies such as washing their hands often, carrying hand sanitiser and using it, covering their mouth while coughing or sneezing and seeing a health care professional if they are feeling unwell.

Three weeks on and the infection has spread to 150 countries, area or territories. the Australian Government published the following information on COVID-19:

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath

There have been varied effects from COVID-19, with some individuals reporting mild symptoms and others severely affected by the virus.

The virus is spread in the following ways:

  • Direct contact with an infectious person
  • Close contact with an infectious person who coughs or sneezes
  • Touching objects or surfaces which are contaminated from the cough or sneeze of an infected person

As Australia is a low-risk country, there is no need for healthy members of the public to wear masks. Masks should only be used by medical professionals who may be exposed to infected individuals and members of the public who are coughing or sneezing. Anyone using a mask must also be cleaning their hands frequently.

Employment considerations

We recommend businesses take a proactive approach to manage COVID-19 by implementing a COVID-19 policy. The policy should:

  • clearly communicate the business’s approach to the management of COVID-19;
  • detail the symptoms currently recognised as giving rise to a concern that a person may have the virus, and its means of transmission;
  • direct any employee showing any signs or symptoms to get medical clearance from a doctor even if they have not travelled recently;
  • direct any employee who has recently travelled to China, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran (or has been around someone who returned from any of these countries) to get medical clearance from the doctor;
  • require any employee who has not been medically cleared to be put on personal leave;
  • require any employee who has been medically cleared to self-quarantine for 14 days by working from home or taking paid time off (at the expense of the business);
  • note compliance with the COVID-19 policy is considered a serious matter and a failure to comply may give rise to disciplinary action; and
  • advise employees to seek advice from HR if they are unsure about the application of the policy.

Any employee who refuses to comply should be reminded they have duties under section 25 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic), which includes taking reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who could be affected by their actions in the workplace. A failure to comply with the COVID-19 policy would be a breach of these duties.

Visitors

For visitors attending your business, we recommend implementing the following:

  1. Set up a register that asks the visitor if they:
    • Have travelled to China, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran recently or have been in close contact with someone who has travelled to any of these countries; or
    • Have exhibited any COVID-19 symptoms recently or been in contact with someone who has exhibited such symptoms.
  2. Offer hand sanitizer at reception; and
  3. Encourage the visitor to wash their hands before they enter your business.

Commercial considerations

As the global reach of COVID-19 expands, businesses who rely on international supply chains from the affected areas have felt the impact the most. We recommend businesses review their commercial contracts to understand the rights and obligations concerning delay or failure to perform the contract. Further, we recommend businesses take steps to ensure they have a contingency plan in place.

If you are unsure how COVID-19 affects your commercial contracts, rights and obligations, please contact Sotheary Bryant.

FCW Lawyers will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and provide general advisory updates via our website.

Written by Sotheary Bryant and Monica Vu

Have a question or need advice?

Our team is here to provide the right advice for your business and workforce. If you have a question or require assistance, please contact Andrew Douglas.

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Heightened levels of stress around the pandemic is also a relevant factor. An April 2020 study reported 88% of the participants (US employees) faced moderate to extreme stress during the pandemic and nearly 70% faced the most stressful time of their professional career.

Paul Evans

Managing Director, Toro Digital

Psychological hazards of e-working during the pandemic is a relevant factor. The Australian Psychological Society identified these hazards as conflicts between work and family, workload and over-working, future uncertainty and isolation/loneliness.

Heightened levels of stress around the pandemic is also a relevant factor. An April 2020 study reported 88% of the participants (US employees) faced moderate to extreme stress during the pandemic and nearly 70% faced the most stressful time of their professional career. Participants noted their productivity consequently declined by at least one hour a day for 62% and at least two hours for 32%.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a marked rise in mental health related prescriptions since March 2020.

These risks can be mitigated by undertaking appropriate risk analysis for each employee, ensuring controls are instituted that mitigate those risks, ensuring regular communication between management and employees around individual circumstances, setting clear expectations including around joint goals and objectives, scheduling regular informal team gatherings, and ensuring access to support and resources.

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