Given the recent increase in reports regarding the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) across Australia and the increasing risk of a pandemic, organisations need to take proactive steps to ensure that they are managing the risks to  workers, as well as managing broader operational issues.

As an employer, what steps should I be taking in respect of our workers?

We recommend that employers take reasonable steps to minimise the risk of the COVID-19.

Those steps include:

Providing information to workers

Communications to workers should be regular and will need to be updated as the situation changes. Ideally, communications should include:

  • directions to employees who, within the past 14 days, have travelled to or from COVID-19 affected areas or have been in contact with a person who is suspected of having, or diagnosed with, COVID-19 to:
    • work from home;
    • obtain appropriate medical clearance before returning to work; and
    • comply with the notification requirements of the employer
  • the employer's position regarding travel – for example, ceasing non-essential business travel to affected areas as well as continuing to update travel rules and arrangements as appropriate, as well as monitoring the travel advice issued by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at www.smarttraveller.gov.au and responding accordingly;
  • guidance regarding good hygiene protocols within the workplace and providing hand sanitisers in areas such as kitchens; and
  • promoting access to employee assistance programs.

Reviewing policies and working arrangements

Ensuring that appropriate policies are in place regarding leave and remote working. Policies that may need to be reviewed, updated and communicated include:

  • working from home/ flexible work policies which will apply to those workers who have been quarantined or infected by the coronavirus and who are able to work remotely. Employers will need to consider whether workers will have the necessary infrastructure to work from home and take steps to ensure that their home environment is safe (for example, requiring a self-assessment);
  • Business Continuity Plans setting out the employer's response if the situation escalates and considering updating or introducing an epidemic or pandemic policy, as relevant;
  • Leave and Stand Down Policies which may be come relevant. These policies must be considered specific to each organisation's work arrangements, including applicable industrial instruments, and employee contracts.

What about visitors to our premises?

Consider taking steps to ensure that other persons who attend the workplace are also taking reasonable precautions. Those steps could include issuing appropriate communications to clients, suppliers, labour hire agencies and candidates regarding the precautions put in place by the organisation.

What other business implications should we be thinking about?

The potential impact of the COVID-19 is of course not just an employee relations/work, health and safety issue – it presents much broader issues for business.

Some measures to address potential adverse business implications include:

  • identify the potential disrupters to your business posed by COVID-19. These may include disruptions to your supply chains and arrangements with third party vendors;
  • commence a review of the contractual arrangements in your supply chains in relation to delayed performance of obligations under the contract, or failure to perform those obligations. In particular, consider whether the force majeure clause may assist and whether you are required to give any relevant notice to suppliers or vendors;
  • consider renegotiating existing arrangements in light of a foreseeable pandemic and supply shortages; and
  • consider contingency arrangements, including sourcing replacement vendors or suppliers, and other practical solutions to potential business interruptions.