"My employer has started to make noises about us
gradually returning to work. What are some of the issues
we need to be aware of?"
Firstly, it’s crucial you have one or more health and safety representatives (HSRs) as it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are going to be a range of issues which need to be considered and dealt with before workers can safely return to work. Under the obligations of the OHS Act, the employer has a legal duty to consult with any HSRs when identifying and assessing hazards and risks, and when implementing controls to eliminate (or minimise) these hazards and risks. If there are no elected HSRs, then the employer must consult with affected workers – but this is difficult to do effectively, and is often just not done at all. The duty to consult, which is in s35 of the Act, also requires the employer to consult when proposing changes to (almost) anything, like the workplace, the systems of work, the plant and so on. This is super important – how things will need to be done, what the workplace might look like, and more will need to change. Specifically, this might mean changes to or consideration of:
• The physical layout of the workplace to ensure physical distancing
• The hours of work
• How and how often the workplace needs to be cleaned
• Evacuation procedures
• How many visitors/clients can enter the workplace
• Interaction between staff and visitors/clients
• Leave policies
• and more..
These issues will affect the level of risk to workers of contracting COVID-19.
Not all issues are obvious – for example, we have provided feedback to the national WHS body Safe Work Australia on guidance associated with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. In many workplaces, these would have been shut down while COVID-19 restrictions were in place, and will now need to be re-started as workers return. It seems that restarting HVAC systems that have been temporarily shut down can carry significant risks to the health and safety of workers and others entering the building, if the systems have not been maintained and inspected in accordance with relevant regulations and standards prior to restarting.
During periods of shutdown, cooling towers and condenser water systems in an HVAC system can build-up corrosion on the surfaces that have not been chemically treated. When an HVAC system is shut down, sections of the system where water cannot flow through (dead legs) can hold stagnant water. The bacterium Legionella can grow in the corrosion build-up and dead legs, and can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a serious infection in the lungs. Employers, and those with management or control of workplaces, have duties under the OHS/WHS Acts: they must take all reasonably practicable steps ensure risks to health and safety are eliminated or minimised. This includes any risks associatedwith the HVAC system being restarted. Specific advice is being finalised by Safe
Work Australia and will be available on their website (www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au).
There will be other issues, depending on the workplace and the type of work. For example: workers in the transport sector – how many passengers will be allowed in buses or trams; or construction workers – there have already been employer complaints about the difficulties of maintaining physical distancing. For these reasons it is crucial that workers, through their HSRs have a say. It is unacceptable for employers to not consult – using the excuse that there has not been time. It is absolutely ‘practicable’ to ensure that HSRs are involved in the return to work process.