When Australia slowly begins to relax restrictions, it is important employers continue to keep their workers and community safe. As we have seen in the past month or so especially, COVID-19 updates occur regularly, even daily in some states like Victoria. So, Australians must work together to promote a COVID-safe workplace and adhere to advice and regulations.
So, it is important you don’t waltz into the office on your first day back all eager to see colleagues you haven’t seen in person for months expecting it to be like it was before. Sadly, there will be no friendly hugs or handshakes, and no sharing of the latest cake you baked on the weekend. Instead, your return to work will involve strict hygiene policies, social distancing and countless other measures to keep everyone in the office safe from COVID-19.
Before we launch into the finer details of how you should keep your team safe for their return, it is worth noting that all COVID-19 related workplace health and safety measures are contingent on the changes in their state or territory government. So, the information in this article is across the board for Australia-wide.
Read on as we reveal how you can best manage the health and safety of your workers as they return to the workplace post-COVID-19.
Identify vulnerable workers
It is important to identify all employees who are considered high risk or vulnerable and ensure they adhere to the government’s COVID-19 health advice to remain safe. Workers considered to be vulnerable include those who:
- Have a weakened or compromised immune system or known medical issues.
- Are aged 70 years and over.
- Have a chronic medical condition.
Introduce screening questions
You can introduce a screening questionnaire for both employees and staff when they enter the workplace to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Questions might include:
- Do you feel unwell or are you experiencing any flu or cold like symptoms (runny nose, fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or loss of smell)?
- Do you, or have you recently had a fever?
- Have you or anyone you live with returned from overseas within the last 14 days?
- Have you or anyone you live with been in contact with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19?
If the employee or client replies ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, they should not enter the workplace. You should encourage them to seek immediate medical advice which could involve self-isolation for 14 days before returning to the office as per the government’s instructions. You might want to seek advice from your state or territory health authority too.
Workplace risk assessment
Risk assessment and communication between the employer and workers are very important in ensuring the setting up and implementation of physical distancing in the workplace. It might involve a modification to workstations, changing common spaces such as the kitchen and staff room, work vehicles, staggered shifts and other measures to reduce social contact in the workplace.
Not all tasks in some workplaces can meet physical distancing measures. For example, dentists and general practitioners cannot always distance themselves 1.5 metres from their patients. In such situations perhaps consider if the work can be suspended, and if not, apply additional protective measures. This includes sneeze guards, screens, face masks, ventilation, disinfectant and enhanced hand hygiene.
Strict hygiene practices
It would come as no surprise to anyone that COVID-19 is highly contagious and spreads quickly through sneezing and coughing. It also spreads when you come into contact with contaminated objects, surfaces and hands. So, it is absolutely critical you introduce strict hygiene measures to keep your workplace safe. These include:
- Providing hand sanitiser throughout the workplace – on each desk and in common areas such as meeting rooms, the kitchen and even the elevator. Ensure there is always soap available in the bathrooms.
- Place signage around the office to remind employees that they must comply with all measures.
- Remind workers to always cough and sneeze in their elbows or a tissue, dispose of the tissue immediately and wash their hands.
- Reduce the number of physical objects, including documents, that your employees touch. Switch to digital files.
- Introduce regular and in-depth cleaning procedures throughout the office to ensure all surfaces, door handles and lift buttons are sanitised. Ask employees to sanitise their workstations and phones at the end of their shifts.
- Ensure there is always a good supply of paper towels, hand sanitiser and cleaning products.
Social distancing regulations
The government’s current advice is that there is 1.5 metres between two people and one person per four square metres.
You will need to ensure that your employees comply with the strict social distancing guidelines. Some ways to ensure your staff stick to the regulations is by:
- Eliminating contact with others such as handshakes and friendly embraces.
- Having workers avoid touching surfaces touched by others, especially if the surfaces have not previously been sanitised.
- Having no events with external speakers or medium to large gatherings until further notice in line with government advice.
- Having no physical group lunches, catering or other events.
As discussed earlier, implement arrangements to decrease the number of people in the workplace at any one time. Video calls can replace in-person meetings and you can introduce staggered times for teams to be in the office.
Look at food and beverage safety measures
Gone are the days when we can place a hand in the cookie jar for a cookie to go with our cup of tea. Biscuits jars have been replaced by individually wrapped alternatives. It is important to review your food and beverage safety measures. The last thing you want is someone with an unknown case of COVID-19 coming into the office and spreading the virus because they sneezed over all the biscuits while choosing one.
To reduce the risk of cross contamination, ensure all snacks are individually packaged and have disposable cutlery, cups and plates available for staff. And when anyone handles food or beverage for another person, they should wear gloves.
Mental health and psychosocial support for workers
COVID-19 has brought with it a range of concerns. Employees might fear falling ill and even dying, being socially excluded or losing their livelihood. People are at a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health and psychosocial support should be made available to all employees. Risk assessments can assist in identifying and reducing related occupational hazards for mental health.
The wrap up
Returning to work after a global pandemic is not like your average return after a holiday. Post-COVID-19, it involves strict processes to ensure all workers remain safe. By applying the safety measures we have covered in this article we can all work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19.