Not-for-profit Law
Legal help for community organisations

Work Safety

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On this page, you'll find information on creating a safe physical and mental work environment for your employees and volunteers.

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

Can our organisation make a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees or volunteers?  *NEW fact sheet on volunteers and the COVID-19 vaccine

If our workers (including volunteers) are working from home, do we need to conduct a safety inspection?

What reasonable precautions can our organisation take to manage the safety of our 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

Your community organisation may consider taking the following reasonable precautions:

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 the Volunteers FAQs page 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 increased 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 we 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). Only retain essential personnel 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.

Ask your workers to get a medical clearance before returning to the workplace

This should be asked of those workers in an ‘at risk’ category or who chose to self-isolate (for example, if they travelled overseas or were in close or regular contact with a person returning from overseas or who was diagnosed with COVID-19).

The COVIDSafe app

Encouraging your workers to download the COVIDSafe app may be a reasonable precaution to ensure the health and safety of your workers and service users. However, you can’t require your employees or volunteers to download the COVIDSafe app or exclude them from participating in your organisation for not doing so. Such action is expressly prohibited under Commonwealth law.

Justice Connect member law firm, Hall and Wilcox has provided guidance on this.

Can our organisation make a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees or volunteers? 

As Australia rolls out the COVID-19 vaccine, some employers are thinking about whether they can require their workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Organisations that work with vulnerable groups or have direct contact with the public might have a greater sense of urgency to vaccinate their staff.

28 June 2021 - The National Cabinet agreed to mandate that residential aged care workers receive at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September 2021. This mandate will be a condition of working in an aged care facility. To support the vaccination of these workers, under an $11 million grant program,  residential aged care facilities will receive payments for casual staff going off-site for vaccination, for paid leave for casual staff who become unwell after vaccination and who don't have other leave entitlements, and to facilitate off-site vaccination for employees. Read the National Cabinet media statement for more information.

States and territories have issued public health directions mandating COVID-19 vaccination for some workers. See the Fairwork Ombudsman website for a summary of current state and territory public health directions.

As state and federal governments roll out guidance on the issue of mandating vaccination, organisations should be cautious about requiring vaccination as a condition of employment. The safety benefits need to be balanced with other legal issues including:

  • Unfair dismissal claims - Employers might have difficulties defending unfair dismissal claims in situations where their workplace can be reasonably regarded as COVID-safe by using other means such as social distancing, masks or even personal protective equipment.  
  • Discrimination claims - Employers need to consider whether vaccination should be an inherent requirement of the employment and what would be considered a reasonable basis for refusal; watch out for discrimination on the basis of medical or religious grounds. 
  • Workers compensation claims - Employers may face workers’ compensation claims from employees who experience harmful side effects from the COVID vaccine if the vaccine is taken as an employment directive in work environments where vaccination is not mandatory.

The Fairwork Ombudsman has published guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations and the workplace. Since 12 August 2021, this guidance includes a helpful tiered approach to assessing whether a vaccination mandate is reasonable. Tier 1 covers employees with increased risk of COVID-19 (such as hotel quarantine workers), tier 2 covers vulnerable employees (such as health care or aged care works), tier 3 covers employees who have high interaction with other people (such as retail workers), and tier 4 covers employees with low contact (such as people working from home).

Your organisation may also be able to encourage employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations by offering incentives in certain circumstances. For more information about the circumstance when you can do this, see the Therapeutic Goods Administration website

What about volunteers?

If your organisation has volunteers, you may want to start thinking about your approach to the vaccine – this may depend on factors like who are your service-users, the size of your volunteer workforce, other COVID-19 precautions in place, and how volunteer work is currently being performed. If you want to put mandatory requirements in place (for example, making vaccination a requirement for volunteering), you should get legal advice.

Note - Each organisation will have to take an approach based on its own circumstances and in line with government advice. 

See the Department of Health’s website for information on the phased availability of COVID-19 vaccines in Australia. 

Volunteering Australia has published an information sheet on how volunteers are included in the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out.

For more information about volunteers and the COVID-19 vaccine, see our fact sheet below which considers the questions:

  • Can our organisation make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for our volunteers?
  • Can our organisation end a volunteer relationship if a volunteer refuses to be vaccinated? Are there any risks in doing this?
  • Could our organisation be responsible if an unvaccinated volunteer is diagnosed with COVID-19 in the course of their volunteering?
  • What information should we provide to our volunteers about the COVID-19 vaccine program?

If our workers (including volunteers) are working from home, do we need to conduct a safety inspection?

Ordinarily, it would be ideal to have an appropriate person conduct a risk assessment on-site at the worker’s proposed premises of remote working. However, this can be difficult in the current environment.

Instead, we recommend providing a checklist or questionnaire for your worker to complete themselves. This checklist or questionnaire could address elements such as the placement and height of chairs relative to desks, the angle of monitor screens or laptops, and the surrounding environment generally.

If a volunteer or employee requests that your organisation conduct a physical inspection of the premises where they propose to work, consider whether this request is practicable for your organisation. When considering the request, make sure that conducting a physical inspection won’t expose another worker to COVID-19 (for example, if the worker conducts an inspection at premises where there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19).

Managing mental health issues 

With the easing of social restrictions, as some workers return to the workplace (see ‘How do we plan our return to work?’), it’s important to support your workers that continue to work or volunteer from home. Addressing mental health issues in a remote working environment is an important part of your WHS duties. Even if a safety inspection is not practicable, you should review your staff’s working from home arrangements regularly.

SafeWork Australia’s Working from home - Workstation Setup Guide, and its resource on managing Mental Health of your staff may be helpful resources to share with your workers.

Back to the Managing people through COVID page

Last Updated: 10 September 2021