With increasing Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Australia, it is important that health, aged care and community sector workers understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to working in sectors with greater chance of exposure to the virus.

As of 4th March 2020 – there were 33 confirmed cases in Australia and 89,000 globally.

The current evidence is that it takes between 2 and 10 days before people who are infected become sick and develop a fever. A person may not be showing any signs of illness, hence the ability for the infection to spread. This is not unlike the common cold or influenza, but it appears to be more infectious.

Unlike influenzas, there is currently no vaccine and therefore the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus can only be achieved by isolating cases and the practice of good respiratory and hand hygiene.

The Department of Health has also released additional guidance to workers in those sectors at greater risk of infection, such as health and aged care.

What are my rights at work?

Workers should be aware of their workplace health and safety rights, summarised below.

  • Employers are required to required to provide healthy and safe work, so far as is reasonably practicable. The obligation from the employer is to provide safe/healthy “work”, whilst workers are at work. There are also obligations for employers to monitor, so far as reasonably practicable, working conditions and the health of workers.
  • Employers have an obligation to provide information and training for workers regarding potential health risks.This will apply differently across industries e.g. health where there are clear infection control procedures vs transport and retail where the general health advice will apply.
  • If current public health measures are unable to prevent cases of community acquired coronavirus infection, employers will have obligations to ensure that co-workers are not exposed to known cases or contacts. Employers will be required to provide any contacts of cases to public health authorities.
  • Workers also have obligations to take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons.
  • Workers have rights to refuse to carry out work if the worker has reasonable concern the work would expose themselves to a serious risk from an immediate or imminent exposure to a hazard. The worker needs to have a reasonable concern and there need to be a serious risk. Such risks may include psychosocial risks arising from potential exposure to the virus. Given the public health response, serious risk will be dependent upon if there is a risk of contact with a confirmed case. It is less clear if there is a “suspected case”.
  • Workers and Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) have rights to be informed about precautions to be taken and to challenge preventative health measures.
  • Where there is potential exposure to Coronavirus (COVID-19), workers should advise employers of exposure and the need to isolate in accordance with issued health guidance. Employers should be encouraging self-reporting of such instances and ensuring that there are not barriers or disincentives to reporting. In these instances employers should be providing paid leave to ensure that workers are not financially disadvantaged by making such reports.
  • Employers will need to ensure that no one is discriminated on the basis of sickness or for other reasons related to COVID-19.

Where can I find out more?

As situation changes from day-to-day, workers should familiarize themselves with the following resources and check for updates. In addition, the HSU will continue to provide more information as it arises:

Fair Work Ombudsman

Department of Health

World Health Organisation (WHO) – Daily Reports

As always – you can contact your union by calling 1300 478 000 or online using our contact form here.

If you would like to read more – the ACTU has prepared an advice sheet, available below.

ACTU – COVID-19 Advice (4 March 2020)

 

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