person working from home desk

Now that the National Cabinet has outlined its three step roadmap (see here) to a COVID-safe Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has encouraged work places to become “COVID-safe” noting that “Safework Australia would be the single source of information, which will allow business to plan with confidence and consistency”.

As directors have a legal duty to implement and monitor systems to ensure safe working conditions in their workplaces so far as reasonably practical, set out below is an overview of some of the key information that has been released related to physical distancing, common areas and cleaning. These recommendations will change how workplaces operate over the coming months and directors have a duty to ensure compliance with the guidance.

The full guidance, including industry specific considerations, can be found here. Directors must take steps to ensure that their organisations are complying with the industry-specific information, as well as relevant regulatory bodies and local state and territory requirements.

Questions for boards to ask management to ensure they satisfy their WHS obligations

  • Has a WHS risk assessment for COVID-19 been undertaken? Does it satisfy the practical Safe Work Australia guidance?
  • How is the organisation ensuring physical distancing obligations are satisfied? Where they can’t be satisfied, what precautions are being taken?
  • What steps are being taken to engage with building managers/landlords to facilitate compliance with physical distancing/cleaning requirements?
  • What steps are being taken to comply with cleaning requirements?

Physical distancing

The current advice from the Department of Health is that:

  • everyone must keep at least 1.5 metres from others (outside of their family unit) where possible; and
  • in a given space, there must be 4 square metres of space per person, where possible.

For example, for a room that was 160 square metres in size, only 40 people would be allowed in the room, to allow each person to have 4 square metres of space.  

To help achieve 4 square metres of space per person (or where not reasonable, to achieve the maximum space per person) the guidance recommends limiting the number of workers in your workplace by: 

  • facilitating working from home, where possible;
  • reducing the number of tasks to be completed each day, where possible;
  • postponing non-essential work; and 
  • splitting workers’ shifts to reduce the number of workers onsite at any given time.

In order to split shifts, the guidance recommends staggering start times or scheduling time between shifts so that there is no overlap of staff arriving at and leaving the workplace or have different entrances and exits to avoid interaction. 

It may not always be possible for workers and others to keep 1.5 metres apart at all times at the workplace (e.g. if workers need to work close together to complete a task like lifting heavy objects). The guidelines set out steps organisations should take to minimise exposure to COVID-19 if close contact is unavoidable.

Common areas, including lifts

Organisations should reduce the number of workers utilising common areas at a given time, again by staggering meal breaks and start times. In addition, the guidelines suggest:

  • spreading out furniture in common areas, while ensuring the layout allows for workers to enter, exit and move about the workplace both under normal working conditions and in an emergency without risks to their health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable.  
  • place signage about physical distancing around the workplace. Safe Work Australia has some examples on its website. Consideration needs to be given to how to communicate with workers and others for who English is not their first language.   
  • consider providing separate amenities for workers and others in the workplace (e.g. separate bathroom facilities for workers and visitors/clients). 

So, what about lifts?

Depending on the size of the lift, only one person may be able to travel in a lift at any one time.  Clearly this is going to make getting to offices time consuming. Safe Work recommends implementing measures at waiting areas for lifts, such as floor markings, or queuing systems to ensure workers maintain 1.5 metres distance. In most cases, this will involve engaging with building managers to implement these requirements. 

Staff gatherings and training

The guidelines state that organisations should postpone or cancel non-essential gatherings, meetings or training. If these are essential: 

  • use non face-to-face options to conduct meetings (e.g. zoom or equivalent)
  • if a non face-to-face option is not possible, ensure face-to-face time is limited;
  • hold the gathering, meeting or training in spaces that enable workers to keep at least 1.5 metres apart and with 4 square metres of space per person (e.g. outdoors or in large conference rooms);
  • limit the number of attendees; and 
  • ensure adequate ventilation if held indoors. 

At least daily cleaning

COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. And a person can acquire the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.  

A key way to protect workers and others from the risk of exposure is by implementing appropriate cleaning and disinfecting measures for your workplace.

The guidance notes that Workplaces must be cleaned at least daily using detergent, and disinfected as needed depending on how high-traffic the area is.

Each industry page has detailed information about cleaning requirements, including the difference between cleaning and disinfecting, which surfaces should be cleaned more frequently (e.g. in retail shops, counters, phones, Eftpos machines and even clothes racks should be cleaned more regularly)

Other information

There are many WHS risk considerations for organisations and directors to consider in the current environment. Refer to our earlier article, Managing WHS risks from COVID-10: What questions should boards be asking?, for information about WHS risks from working from home, psychological health through COVID-19 and other information.