June 18, 2020

Safety and HR obligations when employees return to work

With restrictions being lifted across Australia, many employers are choosing to return to the office. But, from an HR perspective, policies and procedures need to be put into place. Here’s what every employer needs to know and do about helping their teams return safely, and creating a COVIDSafe plan.

The economic effects of COVID-19 put many businesses to shut their physical workplaces and send employees home to work. But now, as Australia’s economy slowly reopens, so too will our office doors. Although we’ve done an excellent job of containing the virus to date, the threat of an outbreak looms as we attempt to find that feeling of normalcy. And, nowhere is that more true than in our workplaces. As an employer and to meet your human resources obligations, the Government has requested all businesses develop a COVIDSafe plan to ensure employees, customers, clients and contractors are safe, secure and looked after when they head back to work.

What do you have to do to meet these standards of safety? Well, here are some of my HR tips to perfecting your COVIDSafe plan.

What do you need to include in your COVIDSafe plan?

Your COVIDSafe plan should set out the measures you’re taking to keep your employees and customers or clients safe. This should cover three things:

> How you intend to keep employees and the public safe on the return to work
> What you’ll adapt your business now and in the future
> How you intend to access assistance package.

You’ll need to update your plan during each step of the return to full economic capacity.

HR Tip 1: Safety is your duty of care

SafeWork Australia’s guidance says that before you get into formulating your plan you must follow workplace health and safety (WHS) laws and observe your general duty to keep people safe in your workplace – this is also an HR obligation that all employers must follow. When it comes to human resources, I can’t stress this enough. Where reasonably practicable, you must eliminate the risk that people will be exposed to COVID-19. The government suggests that you can do this by implementing work from home arrangements, requiring physical distancing, ensuring good hygiene and regularly cleaning the workplace.

You also have a duty to other people in the workplace and must require any customers, clients or contractors to engage in physical distancing. The government recommends you should use contactless deliveries and payments where you can. You also have a duty to maintain the workplace, including keeping washrooms clean and making sure there’s an adequate supply of soap or hand sanitiser. But your duties under WHS law don’t start and end there. SafeWork Australia points out you have a duty to communicate with workers so that they understand how to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. This might include, for instance:

Guidance on how to wash hand properly
> Training on how to fit and use personal protective equipment (PPE)
> Training on how to clean properly
> Guidance on setting up a safe home work station.

HR Tip 2: Carry out those risk assessments

When you complete your COVIDsafe plan you must give effect to these duties by first carrying out a risk assessment. You must also consult with workers to get their input on what should be done. After all, SafeWork Australia says that it’s your employees who’ll know where risks lie and often have the best ideas on how to overcome them.

HR Tip 3: Keep the workplace safe

SafeWork Australia has also come up with two checklists you should complete to make sure you’re cleaning the workplace properly and maintaining good hygiene. Another takes you through how to maintain physical distancing in the workplace. As part of your COVIDSafe plan, you should also print signs and posters on good hygiene and handwashing practices and talk to your workers about these new expectations. There are posters on physical distancing that you should also display. You’ll find links to all the signs and checklists you need in the online version of the COVIDSafe plan.

On top of this, your COVIDSafe plan should include any directions specific to your industry. You can read about those directions here. It should also highlight what you should do in the case of a workplace infection, including what action you plan to take and how you’ll communicate with staff and meet your privacy obligations.

HR Tip 4: Return and adapt

Under your COVIDSafe plan, you’re also required to show how you’ll get your business up and running again, as well as how you’ll adapt to the current situation. As part of this, you need to review whether physical and social distancing will change the way you do business. Also, it’s worth considering if it’ll change the way your employees interact with customers and each other – will any employee’s safety be compromised? SafeWork Australia suggests you may need to tap into the expertise of others such as your accountant, industry association and local government. It also suggests speaking with businesses similar to yours to find out what they’re doing and whether you can implement similar processes.

HR Tip 5: Access support and assistance

Safe Work Australia recommends that you look into what government support and assistance is available. For instance, if you qualify for the JobKeeper subsidy,  this could help you meet your wage bill – at least until September – and keep your teams employed. Meanwhile, the cashflow boost could help your business meet its tax obligations more easily. Finally, SafeWork Australia recommends consulting the FairWork Ombudsman website to find out further information on supporting your employees, including workplace entitlements. You can also read more about your obligations to employees here.

In times like this, ensure safety first

If you’d like some assistance in setting up a COVIDSafe plan for your workplace, then speak with one of our dedicated HR consultants at Catalina today. We can assist in putting together an appropriate strategy for you and your business.

say hi to our author

Merilyn founded Catalina Consultants in 2012 on the belief that all organisations, regardless of size, should have access to top quality bespoke HR services. She enjoys working closely with her clients and believes that the best results are built on relationships of rapport, trust and authenticity. Growing up, Merilyn had her sight set on stardom and dreamed of becoming an actor. She also sang and played the piano, but ended up studying accounting and HR. Whilst she hasn’t won her Grammy just yet, she still loves a good karaoke night. Merilyn loves to travel with her family, with South Africa being one of her most memorable destinations.

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