Work health and safety during a pandemic | A basic guide for Employers2020-03-09T03:09:20+00:00

WORK HEALTH & SAFETY PANDEMICS A pandemic, by definition, is a disease outbreak occurring across a wide geographical area. It and can be caused by a variety of biological agents, including those of influenza and coronaviruses.

We understand that during a pandemic, the probability of transmission in a workplace is highly probable if control measures are not implemented effectively. So what are the key workplace health & safety concerns during a pandemic?

In healthcare, the probabilities of transmission are increased from patients to employees, but also among co-employees and between members of the general public and employees in a range of other types of workplaces

Research tells us that employees who believe that their employer provides a safe and healthy workplace and have positive reporting cultures are more likely to report for work during a pandemic.

Clear communication promotes confidence in the employer’s ability to protect employees, reduces absenteeism and

Employers should ensure that their employees understand:

  • Differences between seasonal epidemics and worldwide pandemic disease outbreaks;
  • Which job activities may put them at risk for exposure to sources of infection;
  • Who is at risk, particularly those in high contact roles or those who are potentially immune-compromised?
  • What options may be available for working remotely, or utilizing an employer’s flexible leave policy when they are sick;
  • Social distancing strategies, including avoiding close physical contact (e.g., shaking hands) and large gatherings of people;
  • Good hygiene and appropriate disinfection procedures;
  • What personal protective equipment (PPE) is available, and how to wear, use, clean and store it properly;
  • What medical services (e.g., vaccination, post-exposure medication) may be available to them; and
  • How supervisors will provide updated pandemic-related communications, and where to direct their question

Leave during a pandemic

Employers may consider providing sick leave so that employees may stay home if they are sick. Flexible leave policies help stop the spread of disease, including to healthy employees.

Training to prepare for a pandemic

Following the WHO guidelines, employers should provide worker training on infection controls, including the importance of avoiding close contact (within 2 metres) with others.

Employers should provide adequate supplies and ready access to soap and running water, tissues, alcohol-based hand sanitizers and cleaning agents. Some worksites may need PPE (e.g., gloves, face shields, and respirators).

Frequent visual and verbal reminders to employees can improve compliance with hand hygiene practices and thus reduce rates of infection.

Workplace control measures for a pandemic

Employers may modify the work environment and/or change work practices to provide additional protection to employees and clients.

For example, employers may install physical barriers (e.g., clear plastic sneeze guards), conduct business in a different manner (e.g., use drive-through service windows, implement telework arrangements), improve ventilation (e.g., install high-efficiency air filters, increase ventilation rates), install additional hand sanitiser dispensers, provide facial tissues, and have employees use PPE.

Employers should select equipment, such as surgical masks and respirators as described below, that will protect employees against infectious diseases to which they may be exposed.

TABLE ONE Comparison of Surgical Masks and Respirators  

Surgical Masks Respirators (e.g. filtering facepiece)
 
• Used by employees to protect themselves against splashes and sprays containing infectious agents.
• Placed on sick individuals to prevent respiratory infections that spread by large droplets; worn by surgeons to avoid contaminating surgical sites.
• May not protect against airborne-transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal.
• Can be used by almost anyone, regardless of training.
• Should be properly disposed of after use.  
Used by employees to prevent inhalation of small particles, including airborne-transmissible infectious agents.
• To be effective, should have the proper filter material (e.g., N95 or better), be Australian Standards Certified, and must fit tightly to prevent air leaks.
• For use, require proper training, fit testing, availability of appropriate medical evaluations and monitoring, cleaning and oversight by a knowledgeable staff member.
• An employer must establish a respiratory protection program that is compliant with statutory requirements under the various Australian regulators.  

Risk Communication

Employees should be aware of the exposure risk level associated with their job duties. In addition, a pandemic may disproportionately affect people in certain age groups or with specific health histories.

Employees with job-related exposure to infections who voluntarily disclose personal health risks should be considered for job accommodations and/or additional protective measures, e.g., use of PPE.

Higher risk work settings include those healthcare workplaces where: infected patients may congregate; clinical specimens are handled or transported, or materials contaminated with blood or infectious wastes are handled.

These settings warrant the use of physical barriers to control the spread of infectious disease; worker and client management to promote social distancing; and adequate and appropriate PPE, hygiene and cleaning supplies.

Additional information is available at the Australian Government Department of Health site.

TABEL TWO: What are the work health & safety risks during a pandemic

Very High and High Exposure risk Medium Exposure risk Lower Exposure Risk
Healthcare employees, particularly those working with known or suspected pandemic patients.   Employees with high-frequency interaction with the general public (e.g., those working in schools, restaurants and retail establishments, travel and mass transit, or other crowded environments)   Employees who have minimal contact with the general public and other co-employees (e.g. office employees).  

Assistance for Employers

A range of fact sheets are available on the Australian Government Department of Health site. You should also check with your State-based Health Service.

The Federal Government has established a Coronavirus Health Information Line

You can call this line if you are seeking information on novel coronavirus. The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

1800 020 080

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Note: the information contained in this article Work health and safety during pandemics is a guide only and should be consulted in line with statutory and government responses to pandemics