Coronavirus means changes for your workplace. And the commute there

There are a lot of things companies will have to do to reduce the risk of any spread of coronavirus.

There are a lot of things companies will have to do to reduce the risk of any spread of coronavirus. Pexels: Marc Mueller

Working from home was a big adjustment for many. For others it was a huge upheaval.

Now, as the prospect of returning to workplaces approaches – in some states sooner than others – other big changes are on the way.

How will your workplace and commute be different? What should your boss be doing to prepare? And are they responsible if you get sick?

We asked some experts.

Is hot-desking a thing of the past?

Liberty Sanger, a principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn who specialises in workplace injuries, says it absolutely is.

“Hot-desking is out. It’s just going to be too hard to make sure that you’ve got a clean environment where the infection has been removed,” she tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.

But she says it’s not the only part of work that companies have to think about. There’s also:

  • Ensuring people have enough space to stay 1.5 metres apart
  • Keeping surfaces clean in office kitchens and bathrooms
  • People’s journey to work
  • Managing appropriate spacing in lifts
  • Reducing the number of meetings and using videoconferencing where possible.

What about workplaces that aren’t offices?

Occupational health and safety consultant Stephen Pehm says many workplaces have unique challenges when it comes to ensuring safety.

For example, on construction sites there could be some conflict over who is responsible for workers, as sometimes principal contractors and the employers of subcontractors both have a duty to provide a safe worksite.

“So things like shared first aid kits may be an issue. Who has responsibility if a worker develops an illness on site, or he’s seriously injured? Who provides the first aid?” Mr Pehm asks.

He says things could also be complicated for people whose job takes them to other workplaces.

“It’s a strange new world in that it will be not be known how workers in that host workplace respond to visitors. They might even have a rule of no visitors at all,” he says.

“Each of these scenarios present unique challenges.”

While some industries will have different challenges the basic advice about hygiene is the same. Photo: ABC

Safe Work Australia has published guidelines for different employers and employees in different industries, but Mr Pehm says they don’t address all the challenges that might arise.

“They’re comprehensive in the sense that they tell you what you have to do to ensure or to minimise the risk of infection in your workplace. In terms of being specific for each industry, they’re probably not not as prescriptive as that,” he says.

“But the legislation for health and safety is what we call a principles-based legislation. So it’s really up to employers to provide the means of making sure their workplaces are safe because they know their workplaces better than anyone else.

“Really, if it’s all about cleaning, cleaning, cleaning and promoting personal hygiene, the approach is the same across all workplaces.”

Can you refuse to go back to work if you’re concerned about health and safety?

If the workplace is not taking appropriate steps to minimise the risk of COVID-19, Ms Sanger says employees should speak to:

  • Their doctor, if there are risks to an underlying health condition
  • Their union or a health and safety representative
  • Their boss about their concerned about and if there are other work arrangements e.g. working from home.

She says in some circumstances bosses have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments because of a person’s medical condition.

“This could include working from home arrangements. It is always useful to seek your doctor’s view about the need to make workplace adjustments,” she says.

“Under workplace laws, an employee cannot be subject to adverse action because they raise a concern about workplace health and safety.”

Are employers liable if someone is infected at work?

It’s complicated, because it may be hard to prove the person contracted coronavirus at work.

But Ms Sanger says the employer is definitely responsible if it spreads to other staff.

“You may have people presenting to work who have been exposed elsewhere, but they will then be coming into your workplace and infecting others,” she explains.

“There’ll be no doubt about your liability with respect to the others.”

She says no company wants to be the one that has an outbreak.

“There’s a lot of information out there about what you need to do to make your workplace as safe as possible. You need to make sure that you are meeting all of those standards,” she says.

“This is not the time to be cutting corners.”

Mr Pehm says WorkCover is a “no-fault” system.

“So if you pick up an infection in the workplace, even if you do something silly, it’s likely you’d be having a WorkCover claim awarded.”

What if someone contracts COVID-19 on their way to work?

Ms Sanger says the laws vary from state to state. In some states, your trip to work is covered.

But again, it could be difficult narrowing down exactly where someone was infected.

“If that person contracts it on public transport but brings it into your workplace there may be some ambiguity about whether you’re liable for that person, but there won’t be any ambiguity about whether you’re liable for everybody else,” Ms Sanger says.

Who’s going to police new workplace rules?

Is it on managers to monitor whether staff are following guidelines, or is it a team effort?

Mr Pehm says people have a duty to themselves to keep clean and hygienic.

“Washing your hands using sanitisers … if you’re hot-desking, cleaning your workstation and keyboard with antiviral sanitiser,” he says.

He says everyone needs to play their part.

“I accept some people won’t do that because humans are fallible,” he says.

“So calling out your colleague if they’re not doing the right thing, even down to things like leaving scraps of food or the absolute no-no: Leaving used tissues on your desk.

“I think this is a real opportunity for people to work together. The role of managers will be to drive this.

“Managers, if they’re smart, will become the OHS champions and each individual manager will be constantly checking in with their team, whether they’re working remotely or in the workplace, asking how things are going [and] if there are any issues.”

What about mental health?

Mr Pehm says employers have a responsibility for their workers’ wellbeing.

“In the scenario that an employer is not taking any steps to manage this risk or any other risk, it’s likely that workers are going to be pretty nervous – they’re going to be nervous anyway returning to the workplace, and that’ll only be heightened if they’re being forced to not social distance and they don’t have access to sanitising materials and so on,” he says.

“There’s definitely an employer responsibility in this area.

“My advice to employers is to manage things before they, before they start having acute consequences. And that’s going to start on day one, when employers return to the workplace.”

How will public transport cope?

Public transport is being managed very differently state by state.

No limit has been placed on numbers of commuters on buses in Queensland, while New South Wale has introduced caps of 12 people on buses and 32 on train carriages.

In Victoria, authorities are so worried about overcrowding they’ve put in place a public health order directing people to continue working from home for all of June.

Yale Wong, a research associate with the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney, says public transport distancing is a challenge.

“The unfortunate reality is social distancing on mass transit is a bit of an oxymoron,” he tells Life Matters.

Commuters on a packed Adelaide train in mid-May. Photo: SA Labor

He wants public transport operators to be more “agile” and responsive when demand is peaking.

“So having spare buses stationed at key places or trains or light rail tram vehicles to ready to be deployed, when they need to be. [That’s] really important to help and maximise the amount of capacity on the system for passengers,” Mr Wong says.

Epidemiologist Marylouise McLaws has advised the World Health Organisation on coronavirus.

She says social distancing on public transport while also getting everyone to work may not be possible, and says masks could be the answer.

Professor McLaws fears people won’t be able to properly socially distance while commuting. Photo: ABC

She says there isn’t a lot of science around whether community wearing of masks reduces infections, but that in a medical setting they can protect the patient and the doctor.

“The logic goes that masks protect both ways. The susceptible and, of course, the person potentially breathing in infected particles from an infected person,” she says.

“So the logic would go that in a crowded area, such as a plane or bus or train or in a lift, where you can’t keep that physical distance, then a mask, even a non-surgical mask, could provide us an additional protection.”

While other countries have required people to wear masks, that’s not the advice in Australia for most people.

Should every carriage be a quiet carriage?

Ms McLaws says people should also try to keep quiet in enclosed spaces like buses or lifts.

“We do know that people when they talk and laugh are bringing particles from further down in their lungs and potentially pushing out particles that are infected,” she says.

“So talking on a bus, a train or a plane increases the likelihood that particles that have got a virus in them can be pushed out.

“We don’t know what the infective dose is, but [we should do this] to be very sensible, very protective.

“Because this is not just a cold, and even flu can kill. This does kill and it does cause long-term ill health.”


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