While it is common knowledge that, as a result of COVID-19, workplace health and safety obligations come into play and need to be complied with, it is helpful to look at what exactly these obligations are under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 2015.
Various parties have duties under the Act, including persons conducting a business or undertaking (‘PCBUs’; this includes companies, partnerships, and individuals), officers (such as directors of companies and partners), and workers.
A key obligation for PCBUs is to manage risks. There is a duty to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable; and if it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate those risks, to minimise them so far as is reasonably practicable.
In the context of COVID-19, elimination primarily involves the exclusion of people from the physical workplace (as opposed to the virtual workplace). During the lockdown, everyone is required to be at home unless they work in an essential business. If any worker in an essential business workplace poses a risk of having or harbouring the disease, the risk of transmitting the disease needs to be managed by excluding the worker from the workplace.
For workers in essential businesses who remain in the workplace, duty-holders need to minimise risks. This involves taking steps such as:
Minimising risks also includes carrying out a high level of cleaning of surfaces and prominently displaying relevant information to people working in or visiting a workplace. Certain essential businesses will require workers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as for some personnel working in the health services sector. The key is: what is reasonably practicable? This will depend on, amongst other things, the workplace and the type of work being undertaken. WorkSafe has published guidance to help with the management of risks in essential businesses, which is essential reading for duty-holders who work in such a business.
The health and safety of workers who are able to work remotely also needs to be managed. This involves consideration of the work-from-home setup, in terms of the equipment used for the job. Has the equipment been arranged in a way that minimises the risk of harm, for instance, in a way that is ergonomically correct? Have steps been taken to minimise the risks of worker stress and fatigue? This can involve thinking about how to replicate workplace checks and balances in the home office environment, and how to record that this has been done.
Under the Act, the primary duty of care on PCBUs includes obligations to:
There are also obligations on PCBUs who manage or control a workplace to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace and anything arising from the workplace are without risks to the health and safety of any person. This means PCBUs owe obligations to people both inside and outside the workplace. In terms of meeting those obligations, being able to demonstrate the steps mentioned above will go a long way towards showing compliance.
The obligation on officers is to exercise due diligence to ensure the PCBU complies with its duties or obligations. These obligations are separate from the obligations imposed on PCBUs themselves, and anyone holding the position of an officer needs to be aware that the obligations (and therefore liability for non-compliance) are personal.
A worker’s obligations are to, while at work:
Workers must also:
Therefore if an employer issues a reasonable instruction, policy or procedure that relates to eliminating or minimising the risk of COVID-19 – for instance, requiring an essential worker to work remotely – there is a direct obligation on the worker to comply with it.
Finally, there are obligations on PCBUs to engage with workers on health and safety matters, meaning sharing relevant information in a timely manner and giving workers a reasonable opportunity to express their views and raise work health or safety issues in relation to the matter.
In terms of the Act’s ‘teeth’, a failure to meet obligations can result in convictions and significant fines on any duty-holder, whether that is a PCBU, an officer, or a worker.
At the time of publication of this article, WorkSafe has clearly communicated that WorkSafe won’t take enforcement action if the PCBU’s actions meet expectations under Health and Safety at Work Act, even if a worker or other person contracts COVID-19.