Practical advice for COVID-19 workplace risk management | IMPAC health and safety
2 April, 2020 | News
Well, like many of you, the past two weeks have probably been the most difficult period we have faced in our 20 year history. Hang in there - we can all get through this. We know that you are receiving considerable information during these challenging times so we will aim to keep this brief and provide practical answers to some of the COVID-19 workplace risk management questions you may have.
What must our business do to manage Coronavirus under the Health and Safety at Work Act?
Our current legislative framework does not provide for any “specific requirements” in relation to our current COVID-19 challenges. However, you do need to focus on the Primary Duty of Care (S.36 HSW Act) that requires all Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and other people who could have their health and safety affected by your work activities.
So, at times like this, what is a reasonably practicable step? You will all be aware that we are required to consider the current state of knowledge and also the availability and suitability of controls. The reality today is many scenarios have not previously been envisaged, thought through, or to some extent, were unimaginable a month ago. The important thing is to try and do what a reasonable and prudent person would do in the circumstances.
Here are our recommendations:
First – follow the advice of Government / Ministry of Health, who have outlined various control measures that reduce risk, and make sure they are established in the workplace.
This includes doing the basics such as providing information and training around hand washing, staying away from work if having symptoms, practicing safe social distancing and establishing good cleaning measures.
Get your information from credible sources of truth. That is, take guidance and advice from official channels and try and avoid hearsay, innuendo, or scaremongering. We are aware that many such communications are circulating.
Second – Offer support and be kind to your staff. Many people are very anxious either about the virus or about their financial situation. If there are negative impacts on the business, establish good, open, honest communications and good faith discussions on how best to manage and offer support for anyone that is being impacted either financially or from a health perspective.
Third – Examine the specific risk controls that you need to safely operate if you are an essential service, or to return to work after the lockdown is over. For example, if you are in manufacturing, closely examine how adequate social distancing can be achieved. This could include measures such as smaller crews, reduction in pace, changes to work organisation, introducing remote shift change over meetings, etc.
It’s important to have “internal team bubbles” so if a case should emerge, you have minimised its potential impact within your workplace by confining it to a very small group.
A formal risk assessment should be completed to both assist and demonstrate you have worked through a good process to get to the safest outcome. The best approach may not always be clear and you may need expert input to assist (e.g. from Occupation Medical Providers, Hygienists, H&S Professionals). For example, these specialists could provide help on what Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should ideally be used, or if not practical, what other control measures are appropriate and how they should be deployed e.g. social distancing and isolation.
Finally, Health and Safety Representatives can be a crucial resource at this time. Providing communication, checking in on staff, collating any concerns within the workplace, or simply touching base with those isolated in their homes.
Nothing to date has removed an Approved Health and Safety Representatives legislative power to 1) issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) or 2) order unsafe work to cease. We are not aware that either of these has been used in this time, nor do we believe it should be.
The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. Addressing people's concerns is imperative. Even if you do not perceive it as relevant to you, we guarantee, given human nature, it will be relevant to the person that raised it.
I’m the Business Owner / CEO / Director. What should we be doing?
As an Officer, you have the Duty of an Officer (S.18 HSW Act) to exercise due diligence at this time. You need to seek assurance that your business is managing the human risk appropriately, along with focusing on your financial and wider company obligations.
Take time to understand what precautions or actions the business is undertaking and ensure the business is keeping records of the rationale behind its risk management decisions. Hindsight is a great thing. When all this is said and done, you may need to refer to some of this. Our advice is to be disciplined and vigilant in this manner.
Open lines of communication are a crucial tool right now. We are all required to operate in good faith; that is, dealing with each other openly, honestly, and not misleading each other. Nothing has changed in this duty. Simple questions you can ask staff include what is in place, how is it working, what can we do to help / prevent risk of spread, how are staff coping, and what could the business do to help further.
If you are still operating during the lock down period, it is critical you have good reporting processes around incidents, self-isolations, the vulnerability of your people, and assurance regarding the effectiveness of COVID-19 risk controls. Large multi-site organisations should have automated processes and analytics to enable early identification of issues or trends to enable quick preventative action.
Importantly, also probe to check whether controls have had unintended consequences. For example, introducing new cleaning processes without additional resource may create risks for those doing the cleaning; or having a locked down site while still receiving or shipping goods, but not catering for the basic needs of the drivers that are doing the work (access to toilets / facilities).
Further, consideration should be given to the impacts of working from home both in terms of introducing new risks, but more importantly whether this may cause existing critical risk control and assurance processes to degrade within the organisation?
Who covers the cost of people that need to self-isolate or the cost of treatment / wages for those people that get COVID-19?
This is where we should all appreciate that we are very lucky to live in NZ with our free healthcare and also with ACC. For guidance on self-isolation and salaries, please refer to sources such as Employment New Zealand and Government info for Businesses.
Those of you that are Accredited Employers should understand that there is scope within the Accident Compensation Act 2001 for cover for Personal injury caused by a work-related gradual process, disease, or infection (s.30). For some vocational roles, it is plausible they could meet the 3 step occupational illness criteria in some circumstances. A causal link would need to be established between the diagnosis of COVID-19 and work-related tasks. On the balance of probabilities, given that there is community borne transmission, this may be a high threshold to meet. We encourage you to keep well informed in this area.
How can we prepare to get up and running safely after the lock down?
There are several training options and upskilling offerings available in these times of Level 4 lockdown. Online and e-learning options are a great and practical way of ensuring your people stay engaged and complete training that is required within their vocational role. NZQA has been efficient and timely in approving for providers to deliver Unit Standards via indirect means. We are one such organisation and hats off to NZQA for their expediency in supporting our accreditation.
Plan for how you will return safely now so everyone can move quickly when the current Alert level is lowered. This will happen and you need to think through some of the unique challenges and risks this will present in your workplace.
Workers will need support, not only today and tomorrow but for some time to come. The 'new normal' may take some getting used to, and each person will deal with this in their way and manner. Look after your people it will pay back dividends in the long term.
Most importantly, help lead and do your bit to prevent the spread. There will be nothing worse than the country coming out of lockdown with the significant financial pressure from both staff and businesses to get operational, then the rush causes the COVID-19 risk to be mis-managed, leading to yet another lock-down. So do your bit to help keep your people safe and help the country get running again.
Finally, from our team and families to yours, keep safe, be well, and if you need advice, support or COVID-19 risk management solutions, we’re here to help.
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