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Work health and safety laws

How to protect the health, safety and welfare of your employees and volunteers.

Content last updated 31/03/2022

COVID-safe workplace

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What work health and safety issues should you consider when planning your organisation's return to the workplace?

This question is relevant for all workers (paid and unpaid).

There are many parts to an organisation's WHS duties, particularly as it prepares its workforce to return to work.

More information

See our fact sheet Managing the return of volunteers to the workplace. 

Your organisation will need to comply with any legal requirements (under national and state or territory law) to maintain a COVID-safe workplace.

There are a number of factors that influence how to appropriately bring workers back to the physical work environment. It’s possible that measures to promote the health and safety of your workers as they return to work (such as staggered start times) may produce other unintended health and safety risks (such as workers using public transport late at night).

Your return to work plan should be a carefully staged process.

Things to consider in your plan to return to the workplace include:

The size of your workforce and how many people are likely to be returning to the physical work environment. Considering your physical work environment and the current legal requirements, work out how many of your workers could reasonably return to your premises.  

Conduct a risk assessment using our risk management guide. Assess the risks associated with your workers returning to your physical environment. Among other things, your assessment must factor in your physical premises, your workers’ roles and their interactions with your clients.  

Determine how to manage interactions with stakeholders external to your organisation. 

Consult and communicate with your workers. Understanding the concerns of your workers, and taking precautions to manage these concerns is an important part of your legal duties. Tell your workers about the safety measures you are taking to ensure their health and safety as part of their return to work. 

Consider your hygiene and cleaning practices. Use applicable Safe Work Australia resources on hygiene to prepare the physical environment. Access to hand sanitiser and PPE is only a small part of preparing your physical environment.  

Review and prepare your policies. Consider whether your current policies appropriately address arrangements in place to foster safe flexible work, mental health and WHS practices. 

Your organisation could form a suitably qualified committee to guide the organisation through these questions. Where necessary, you may also need to seek expert advice.

Safe Work Australia has published information to support organisations return to the workplace.  

Our Community has published a guide to returning to the workplace safely during a pandemic for not-for-profit organisations. This guide includes information on modifying the workplace, cleaning your premises, dealing with the public and transport issues. 

What reasonable precautions can your organisation take to manage the safety of your workers (including volunteers)?

The reasonable precautions you can take depend on a number of factors (some dynamic) including:

  • the nature of your staff’s responsibilities
  • the size and resources of the organisation
  • the nature of the workplace, particular vulnerabilities of your staff
  • particular vulnerabilities of your service-users
  • the current information about COVID-19, and
  • the guidelines and directions issued by government

Examples of reasonable precautions your organisation can take to manage the safety of workers:

Develop a risk management plan. A risk management plan provides evidence of your consideration of safety laws, foreseeable risks and necessary reasonable action to ensure the safety of your employees, volunteers and service-users. Our Community has published a template crisis policy. You can download a copy of this policy and edit it to meet your organisation's needs. 

Stay informed and follow the latest health advice. Keep up with, and comply with, the guidelines and recommendations of the Australian Department of Health and your state or territory health department. 

Develop a pandemic or infectious diseases plan. Develop a plan that is consistent with the Australian Department of Health and your state or territory health department information. You may want to create a 'COVID-19 taskforce' or appoint a ‘COVID-19 risk manager’ who is responsible for keeping up to date with the changes (see our webpage on volunteers and COVID-19 for more information about a policy and appointing a risk manager). 

Consider what information you need to provide to workers. What and how will you communicate with workers about their obligation to self-isolate and report to you a possible or likely risk of infection? What will you tell them if someone in their workplace has contracted, or is suspected of contracting the virus? Be mindful of privacy considerations. 

Review any existing control measures in place and test whether they remain effective. Consider having multiple controls in place, such as social distancing measures, increased cleaning services, increased personal protective equipment (PPE) training for employees and volunteers, suspension or cancellation of certain activities or reducing the number of employees, volunteers and service-users in the same location. Ask: ‘is it essential for all of these people to be present?’ 

Consider flexible working arrangements. In certain circumstances, workers may be able to perform their responsibilities from a flexible or remote location. Subject to health, safety and risk considerations, this may be a reasonable precaution. See ‘Should you let volunteers work from home’ for more information. Staff should only work or volunteer from home where this is reasonably practical (or to, at least, reduce their hours in the workplace). 

Where necessary, cancel volunteers’ shifts. If such a precaution is necessary, your communication should be clear and include all necessary information about further support your volunteers can receive. Service-users and other organisations may also need to be made aware of this precaution. 

Encourage all workers, including volunteers, to monitor their health and self-report. Employees and volunteers should get tested if they believe they are presenting with symptoms, have been exposed to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, or are a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Organisations should also monitor signs of illness and, if shown, encourage workers to seek medical attention. 

The content on this webpage was last updated in March 2022 and is not legal advice. See full disclaimer and copyright notice.

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