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Returning to Work Post COVID-19 - How to Keep Your Workplace Safe

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift for much of Australia, and workplaces increasingly adjust to operating in what is their new “COVID Normal” environments, consideration does need to be given to planning for how your employees will make a full return to the physical workplace where required to do so. 

Effective planning will assist employers to respond effectively to the post COVID-19 environment and to minimise potential sources of angst for employees. Planning should include both what a return to work will look like in the short term as well as a plan for the longer term, and what identification of adjustments that can be made should future periods of lockdown need to be accommodated.

Some significant questions that need to be taken into consideration when undertaking the planning process include:-

  • What does the business look like post COVID-19?
  • What changes are required for longer term planning?
  • What is the impact of the economic downturn and how will we respond?
  • Are we able to be an agile, mostly virtual workplace?
  • What change can we make with regard to how the work is performed?
  • What do we need to do to prepare for a possible further wave of COVID-19 (or any other disaster)?
  • Did our documentation (employment agreements, awards, policies) provide the tools needed by the business to respond quickly to the pandemic?
  • Do we need to consult and co-ordinate with building owners and other businesses we share premises with, about how they will discharge their WHS duties when they interact with your employees?

Under Australia’s workplace health and safety legislation, an employer is required, so far as is reasonably practicable, to provide a workplace that is free from risk to health and safety. Given this obligation, it is essential that all employers consider the work health and safety risks that exist within their individual workplace and continue to adhere to the relevant health guidance.  Although employers need to continue to monitor the most current information provided by the government health department in their State or Territory, there are certain measures that will need to be implemented to support the safe return of employees to the workplace.

As health and safety is likely to drive physical changes in the workplace, it is imperative that the planning process takes into consideration what changes or control measures will need to be implemented to ensure the safety of your workforce. Such measures may include installing floor markings, signage or PPE, hyper vigilance around workplace cleaning, employee hygiene and physical distancing.  Further measures that may need to be implemented could include undertaking risk assessments around work related travel, and direct customer/client interactions to ensure the provision of a ‘COVID-19 safe workplace’. 

It is also important to ensure that assessments be undertaken to identify any new risks that may arise from any resulting changes that have occurred to existing work practices, procedures or the work environment. For example, a new workstation assessment may need to be undertaken for workers returning to their usual workplace where there have been changes to the workplace environment or where their workstation has been adjusted during the re-design of the physical layout of the workplace. 

When reviewing potential WHS control measures, other immediate considerations that may need to be taken into account can include:

  • Can practices such as Hot Desking safety really continue? If so, how can this be done safely?
  • Are screens required to improve safety within open plan office spaces
  • Can social distancing requirements, where applicable, be accommodated or will a combination of remote and workplace return need to be implemented? Do we need to modify workplace attendance arrangements (for example, rostering workers to work from the office or home on different days or alternative weeks or staggering shifts)?
  • Can some roles continue to be performed remotely?
  • How can ‘touchpoints’ in the workplace be removed or reduced? i.e., use of sensor doors instead of manual, automatic sensor lights removing the need for switches, directing flow of traffic through workplace including entry and exit points.
  • What strategies can be implemented to ensure social distancing can be managed in communal areas such as meetings rooms, lunchrooms and toilets?
  • What cleaning protocols will be introduced? How will cleaning of high touch points be managed?
  • What training will be provided to employees on correct hygiene and cleaning protocols?   

One primary WHS consideration that does need to be front of mind for any employer is how they can support good mental health for employees both during their transition back into the physical workplace and during any adjustment period. During this transition process, communication and consultation with employees will be key.  Consideration needs to be given to what communication methods will be most effective with individual employees both prior to, and during, their return to the workplace, and how this will continue in the short and longer term. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful and uncertain time for all Australians and as such, a heightened anxiety about returning to a physical work environment is natural. Communication will be paramount to building trust that as the employer, you are across all safety protocols and that you are taking all necessary actions and precautions to minimise any risk to the health and safety. Appointing a nominated contact person in your business for workers to talk to about any concerns can help facilitate the communication process.

In addition to there being concerns about physical risks such as exposure to COVID-19, changes to the working environment or work demands can also create additional risks to psychological health and safety. It is essential that steps be taken to eliminate or minimise the risk to psychological health and safety arising from work so far as is reasonably practicable through implementing measures such as: 

  • Consulting with workers about any agreed measures that have been put in place to minimise risks  
  • Responding appropriately to signs a worker may be concerned or anxious about returning to the usual workplace, and where possible, intervene early and provide access to assistance and support mechanisms.
  • Ensuring that expectations are clear and realistic and monitor work levels. 
  • Offering employees flexibility with working arrangements where possible
  • Maintaining regular communication with your employees 
  • Providing employees with a central place to find workplace information and a point of contact to discuss any concerns held, and
  • Providing information about mental health and other support services available to your employees.

Information in HR Advice Online guides and blog posts is meant purely for educational discussion of human resources issues. It contains only general information about human resources matters and due to factors such as government legislation changes, may not be up-to-date at the time of reading. It is not legal advice and should not be treated as such.

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