Australia, like many countries, is closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in December 2019.

In order to meet their duty of care to workers, there are a number of steps employers should now be taking.

Be across the facts, not the hysteria

Symptoms of the coronavirus range from mild illness to pneumonia. Some people will recover easily, and others may rapidly become very sick. Affected people may experience shortness of breath, fever or flu-like symptoms such as coughing, a sore throat and fatigue. The virus is most likely to spread from person-to-person through:

  • direct contact with a person while they are infectious;
  • contact with droplets when a person with a confirmed infection coughs or sneezes; or
  • touching objects or surfaces (such as doorknobs or tables) that were contaminated by droplets from secretions coughed or sneezed from a person with a confirmed infection, and then touching your mouth or face.

Keep up to date with the latest information from the Federal Department of Health: https://www.health.gov.au/resources/collections/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-resources

Acting on the basis of informed, reliable and current medical information will assist employers to minimise the risk of engaging in unlawful discrimination.

Keep your workers informed

Provide up to date information and brief all employees and contract staff on relevant information and procedures to prevent the spread of coronavirus to co-workers. It is important for all to understand that the people most at risk of contracting coronavirus are those who have been:

  • in mainland China recently; or
  • in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of coronavirus.

Effectively communicating reliable and current medical information will assist employers to minimise the risk of persons who have contracted, or are suspected of having contracted, coronavirus from being unfairly targeted, stigmatised or victimised.

You may need to direct an employee to stay at home

If an employee has travelled to mainland China within the past 14 days, or been in close contact with a confirmed case, the Australian Department of Health is advising this person must isolate themselves at home for 14 days after returning or after contact. In these circumstances, it would be lawful and reasonable to direct that employee to stay at home, remain isolated and not return to the workplace until they have a medical clearance to do so.

In these circumstances, consider whether it is practical for the employee to work from home for part or all of that period, rather than take sick leave. Be flexible where possible. Where an employee does not have sufficient accrued sick leave to cover their absence and cannot work from home, subject to any specific terms and conditions in their employment contract or applicable enterprise agreement, they will likely need to take unpaid leave unless they elect to use their paid annual leave or have access to some other form of paid leave or accrued paid time off in lieu, or the employer elects to place the employee on special paid leave.

Do not send your employees to China

At the time of writing, the Australian Government is advising against all travel to China, not just Hubei Province, given the spread of the virus. A prudent employer will heed this advice and defer all such travel until the Australian Government advises otherwise. If such travel simply cannot be avoided, the employer will need to ensure all possible precautions are taken, in line with current medical advice, and the employee complies with all relevant requirements, for example, a period of quarantine upon returning to Australia.

Review and update infection control/hygiene policies and procedures

All employers should review and update their workplace hygiene policies and practices and make employees aware of these measures. Employers in industries which have direct contact with sick or ill patients or customers should also review and update their infection control policies and procedures.

Employees have a duty of care too

Under each State and Territory’s workplace health and safety laws, employees have an obligation to “take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons“. This means an employee must report any symptoms of the coronavirus to both their doctor and their employer so that the employer can ascertain the risk of infection, if any, to co-workers and act accordingly.

Employees should advise their employer if they develop symptoms during their isolation period, particularly if they were in the workplace prior to their isolation.

Further advice?

If further advice is needed on an employer’s legal rights and obligations in dealing with coronavirus and its impact, please contact us.

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