How to keep up with WHS for Australian businesses in a post-pandemic world
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way Australians work. Workplace health and safety (WHS) guidelines are being tested as employers move more of their employees to remote working arrangements like working from home to keep them safe and prevent the disease from spreading out of control.
Federal and State governments have adjusted to these changes by providing guidelines around the best ways that employers can ensure that their workers can work from home (WFH) in a safe and healthy environment. Workers have also, for the most part, quickly embraced the 'new normal' of working from home, with a significant number of them seeing the value of the arrangement by adopting it permanently either part-time or full-time once the pandemic ends. Remote working is here to stay for years to come.
Common risks with remote workers
Working from home comes with its own set of common risks for workers that are different to risks within an office or a normal centralised place of work. Many of those risks are either psychologically related or relate to issues within the household such as family violence.
Working from home can have psychological risks that are different to the risks in an office or your regular workplace. A psychosocial hazard is anything in the design or management of work that causes stress.
Some psychosocial hazards that may impact a worker's mental health while working from home include:
- Being isolated from managers, colleagues and support networks
- Less support - for example, workers may feel they don't have the normal support they receive from their supervisor or manager
- Changes to work demand - for example, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to working at home may create higher workloads for some workers and reduced workloads for others
- Low job control
- Not having clear boundaries between home-life and work-life
- Poor environmental conditions - for example, an ergonomically unsound workstation or high noise levels
- Poor organisational change management - for example, workers may feel they haven't been consulted about the changes to their work
Family violence risks
Public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as self-isolation and working from home arrangements, may also increase workers' exposure to family and domestic violence. Financial pressures, increased stress and disconnection from support networks can also exacerbate the underlying conditions that lead to violence.
Employers must ensure workers and others are not exposed to family and domestic violence in the workplace, including where the workplace is a worker's home. In the event that it is not possible for the worker to be safe at home, an alternative work environment must be provided, so far as reasonably practicable.
Employers should also assure workers that any information will be treated confidentially and securely, to the extent possible and as required by law.
Physical risks for workers around the home include:
- Pre-existing injuries the worker may have
- Other responsibilities the worker may have such as facilitating online learning for children or a caring role
- Broken or damaged furniture, fixtures and fittings including chairs, plumbing, air-conditioning and lighting
- Falling down the stairs
- Getting hands stuck in the shredder
- Repetitive stress injury from sitting down
WHS in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
There have been no current WHS legislative changes in response to COVID-19. However, Safe Work Australia has released a Statement of Regulatory Intent that applies to all Work Health and Safety Regulators in jurisdictions that have implemented the model WHS laws, as well as in Western Australia. The statement does not currently apply to the WHS Regulator in Victoria
Under the statement, all employers must prepare and take action to protect workers and others at their workplace from the risk of exposure to COVID-19 so far as is reasonably practicable.
All employers should:
- Have a plan in place to respond to the issues created by the pandemic
- Review their exposure and infection control policies and procedures, actively promote social distancing, good hand and respiratory hygiene and increase cleaning of common areas within the work environment
- Develop and implement safe systems of work (in consultation with workers and/or their Health and Safety Representatives) that take into account directions and advice provided by health authorities, and
- Keep monitoring the COVID-19 situation as it develops, relying on information from authoritative sources such as public health authorities
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