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The easing of restrictions has many employers and businesses turning their minds towards a plan to returning to work, including how to manage the health and safety of staff, as physical distancing will change how many businesses operate.

I have noticed more people are wearing face masks in public. Can I require my own employees to wear these while at work?

Employees are required under workplace health and safety laws to comply with reasonable directions relating to health and safety, and this can include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Therefore, an employer may be able to require an employee to wear a mask.

Some roles and industries have always required the wearing of masks as PPE, particularly in dusty environments.

Employers should consider the guidance from the federal Department of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) which states that face masks are not usually recommended unless an individual is unwell, or is caring for someone who has or is suspected of having COVID-19.

The WHO has not made any recommendations on the wearing of PPE, including face masks by the general public. They do recommend that the general public maintains a high level of personal hygiene as this is the best way to prevent the spread of illness.

More information is available in the WHO’s Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19 guide.

What are some good hygiene tips to implement in our workplace?
Some general tips to make sure that the workplace is clean and hygienic include:

  • High touch surfaces such as desks and other work surfaces, and high touch objects such as telephones, keyboards, tools and equipment should be wiped with disinfectant regularly as contaminated surfaces are one of the main ways that COVID-19 spreads.
  • Promote regular handwashing by employees, contractors, customers and other visitors to the workplace. Provide hand sanitiser in prominent places in the workplace such as reception or, in the case of employees who travel to different locations, provide hand sanitiser in the car.
  • Promote good respiratory hygiene in the workplace by reminding staff to cover their mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing and provide tissues and bins with lids to hygienically dispose of used tissues.
  • Communicate and promote the message that people must stay home if they are feeling unwell.

Safe Work Australia’s COVID-19 hub contains industry specific information available for download and use.

Before employees return to work, I want them to download and install the COVIDSafe app. Is this allowed?

Under the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Emergency Requirements – Public Health Contact Information) Determination 2020, a person cannot require another person to download the COVIDSafe app, use the app, or consent to data being uploaded from the app.

This means an employee cannot be forced to use it, and the download and use of the app cannot be a condition of return to the workplace.

Employers can remind employees of the benefit of the app (i.e. it assists with contact tracing) but the download and use of it is voluntary.

Can I temperature test employees and other visitors at the workplace?

Most people are likely to understand the benefits of temperature testing and may agree to be tested. If an employee or visitor refuses to be tested, the business decision behind temperature testing needs to be reasonable in order to be enforced, and this will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Because temperature testing is a health and safety measure, employers are required to consult with employees when introducing new risk management systems.

For the temperature testing process to be effective, there are some considerations that should be taken into account, including:

  • A non-contact infrared thermometer should be used to reduce the risk of infection. Will the person conducting the testing require training on how to use the thermometer correctly?
  • What measures are in place to reduce the risks of infection for the tester i.e. will a protective screen or face mask be provided?
  • Where will the testing occur? How will physical distancing measures (i.e. at least 1.5 metres apart) be managed, particularly if multiple employees are waiting to be tested at once?
  • Will employees be required to attend work early in order to be tested?
  • How accurate is the equipment?
  • What temperature will be defined as a ‘fever’ for the purposes of testing?
  • What is the process where a person does have a fever? Will they be tested a second time? Where will they wait that is adequately isolated from others if required?
  • What will happen if a person refuses to be tested? Will they be refused entry to the workplace? If they are an employee, will disciplinary action occur for their refusal?
  • Will a log or record of temperature testings be kept which demonstrates that the checking is occurring? If so, what steps are in place to prevent unauthorised access to private health information?

Many of the above considerations can be managed with the introduction of an appropriate policy, which Ai Group can assist with developing.

Is there a limit of how many people can be at a particular workplace at once?

Each state and territory have different requirements on physical distancing. For example, Victoria’s density requirement (also referred to as the 4 square metre rule) in the Restricted Activity Directions No 9 limits the number of people permitted in a space at any one time by dividing the total publicly accessible space by 4. Restrictions apply in a number of industries; including retail, personal services, hospitality, recreation, culture and entertainment.

This means, if an indoor space is 8 metres long and 2 metres wide, its total area is 16m2. By dividing 16 by 4, it means that no more than 4 people are permitted to be in the indoor space at the same time.

Ai Group’s Workplace Advice Line can assist employers with determining how physical distancing rules apply in other states and territories.

Can I direct employees not to do certain activities outside of the workplace because I want to limit the potential spread when they come to back?

Understandably employers want to reduce the risks of infection in the workplace and protect against any reputational damage that comes with potentially being reported as a source of a COVID-19 cluster or outbreak in the news.

However, the short answer to this question is no. Generally, employers have limited control of employee activity outside of the workplace, unless the conduct is sufficiently connected to their employment and there are potential significant adverse effects on the employer as a result of the conduct.

This means that employees cannot be directed not to eat out for meals or go fishing or camping, if the public health orders in their relevant state/territory permit these activities. It also means that employers may not be able to take disciplinary action against employees if they are found to be in breach of any public health orders.

Employers can encourage employees to comply with the public health orders and educate them on potential risks associated with their out-of-hours conduct, such as fines and the potential of putting the health of others around them at risk.

Ai Group can assist with understanding the restrictions to ensure that businesses comply with the public health orders as they are released.

Further information

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has launched an online tool to help businesses plan their reopening. The tool covers three major topics: keeping people safe, adapting the business and accessing support and assistance.

This tool complements the Safe Work Australia online hub which remains the definitive source of information for businesses to understand their work health and safety obligations.

Advice or assistance

Our advisers are ready to answer your questions. For advice on this topic, or any other workplace relations matter, Employment Plus clients who have placed two or more candidates have free access to the Ai Group Workplace Advice Line.

Please call 1300 862 217. We are open Monday to Friday from 8:30am-5:15pm AEST, except for public holidays.

Please note that the information contained in this article is current at the time of writing (10 June) and does not constitute legal advice.