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Our New Way of Working from Home

With the unprecedented changes we have all been forced to make to the way we live our lives for the unforeseeable future to control the spread of COVID-19, life as we knew it will never be the same.  The restrictions have forced business owners to make the toughest decisions they have ever, and will ever, have to make.  Millions of our fellow Australians have either lost their jobs or their employment situation has dramatically changed. For businesses that are still able to operate, maintaining business continuity during a period of significant disruption has been the number one priority.

Preparing the Workplace for COVID-19

In many circumstances working from home (WFH) is not an option due to the nature of the work.  This requires employers to rethink the setup and layout of their workplaces in order to manage the risk of exposure to COVID-19.  

So, what controls should employers put in place whilst ensuring Federal and State/Territory isolation requirements are being adhered to? There are many controls employers may wish to implement that would minimise the risk of infection.  Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all approach but to determine what will work best for you and your business, the following should be discussed:

  • Actively consider the context of your business i.e. the workplace, how your business engages with other businesses, the work carried out there, your workers and others who come into the workplace.
  • Do what you reasonably can to eliminate or minimise the risk of the people at your workplace contracting COVID-19.

As you systematically identify what other controls need to be in place, there are a number of controls you should implement immediately that are in-line with Federal and State/Territory Government requirements:

  1. Maintain good personal hygiene and cleanliness of the workplace.  
  2. Implement physical distancing rules, limit public interaction and ban visitors from attending the workplace.  Those who can WFH should be advised to do so thus further reducing the number of employees at work.
  3. Establish rosters that stagger the start and finish times of work groups.
  4. Use protective personal equipment (PPE) appropriately.

Distributed Workforces

With the majority of Australian businesses responding to Federal and State/Territory Government directives, the downsizing and re-deployment of workforces has seen an immediate and reactionary response to how and where work is done.  Over the past month, many businesses have been forced to grapple with re-imagining how to operate as a ‘Distributed Workforce’ whilst maintaining a ‘Business as Usual’ experience for customers and clients.   Employer health and safety obligations for a Distributed Workforce do not change, they remain the same.   This means that:

  • Employers have a duty to, so far as is reasonably practicable, to provide safe working environment that is without risks to health.
  • Controlling new risks that may be introduced when an employee works from a location other than their normal workplace.
  • Consulting with employees and/or HSRs, so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect or are likely to directly affect them. 

Employees also retain their health and safety obligations which are to:

  • Take reasonable care for their own health and safety.
  • Cooperate with their employer's actions to make the workplace safe.

With the chaos of setting up a Distributed Workforce  becoming a distant memory and many of us now settling into a new rhythm of work with new routines and way of life, now is a good time for employers to stop and reflect on recent decisions made to control WFH hazards.  For businesses that have access to health and safety professionals/practitioners, get them involved in mentoring Supervisors/Managers on how to have the conversation with employees. 

So how to check that WFH arrangements are safe and suitable? Each employee’s WFH arrangements will be different, however by applying the following steps you can work with employees to confirm the setup and controls are suitable.  Encourage the use of technology, as it will be an invaluable tool Supervisors/Managers can use when having conversations with employees.  

  1. Ask employeesto send photos of their workstation that includes a photo of them sitting at their workstation for you to review and discuss.
  2. If they have not already completed a Working from Home Self-Assessment, ask them to complete one and provide a copy of the completed self-assessment checklist. 
  3. Review the photos and self-assessment checklist with the employee to discuss the WFH setup and the pre-cautions needed to ensure hazards have been removed or are managed.  This can also be completed by conducting a video conferencing walk through inspection of the work area to confirm WFH arrangements are suitable.  
  4. Documentagreed outcomes and actions and send it to the employee to review and action.  Retain all correspondence in accordance with records management procedures for future discussions with the employee.  Revisit this on a regular basis to ensure actions have been closed out and that controls are in place and remain appropriate to the work being completed.

For more complex cases, Supervisors/Managers need to work closely with the employee to identify alternative solutions to make the nominated work area safe.  Where possible, involve q health and safety professionals/practitioners who can provide specialist advice.  There may be circumstances where the employee’s home is not conducive to WFH activities, therefore the business will need to discuss other options.

If you need further guidance or advice on how to meet your health and safety obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic there are a variety of free resources available to you via State, Territory and Commonwealth OHS/WHS Regulator websites. If, after reviewing these resources, you are still uncertain about what or how to meet them, you can contact Verus via www.verus.com.au.

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