Globally the pandemic is in full swing and affecting our lives on so many fronts, and COVID-19 is impacting safety at work in several ways. Work must continue and lock-downs, personal protective equipment, hand hygiene, social distancing and working from home arrangements, are in place to try to ward off the spread of the virus. However, many industries are essential services who are deemed at high risk of transmitting and spreading COVID-19 including those working in health care, transport, sales, cleaning, security, hotel and food services, the cruise industry; and workers in meatpacking, manufacturing, construction, and mining.
In this article, we look at a book that has been compiled in Canada during the first three months of the pandemic to discuss how COVID-19 is impacting safety at work and what organisations can do to safely manage their workplaces. We discuss your duty of care, and what to do if your employees catch the virus and present at work.
The text is very comprehensive and insightful and one chapter that we will also review is about the huge amount of misinformation around the virus that is flooding social media and influencing people’s choices. While the world is keenly awaiting a vaccine to end the pandemic, but there is a growing wave of resistance from workers who are indicating that they are unwilling to vaccinate. We discuss the implications of an emerging and growing anti-vaxxer sentiment in our workforces and the implications for safety and human resource professionals.
How Do We Stop the Spread of the Virus at Work?
COVID-19 is impacting safety at work and SafeWork Australia recommends to keep workers safe and limit the spread, every employer should do the following at their workplace:
- Ensure physical distancing by keeping a distance of at least 1.5 metres between people
- Encourage all workers to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser and to practise good hygiene
- Be aware of how to spot COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath) and make sure workers do not come to work if they are unwell
- Make sure your workplace is regularly cleaned and disinfected
- Have signs and posters around the workplace to remind workers and others of the risks of COVID-19 and the measures that are necessary to stop its spread.
Tap into Safety has a dedicated training module COVID-19 and Your Workplace provides a step-by-step guide to personal hygiene practices, including hand-washing, avoiding physical contact with workmates such as handshaking and kissing. It investigates the requirements of social distancing and advises on how to work in teams, groups and gatherings to encourage safety at work. The training also advises on what to do if you think your employee is showing coronavirus symptoms and who to contact for advice and further help. Please contact us for more information.
Businesses and workers must actively control against the transmission of COVID-19 while at work, consistent with the latest advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), including considering the application of a hierarchy of appropriate controls where relevant. They must prepare for the possibility that there will be cases of COVID-19 in the workplace and be ready to respond immediately, appropriately, effectively and efficiently, and consistent with advice from health authorities.
I Feel Unwell, But I Can’t Afford to Stay Home
SafeWork Australia advises that companies have a duty to minimise the risk of workers and others in the workplace being exposed to the virus, so far as reasonably practicable. Employers are doing all they can and recognise that employees presenting at work with symptoms creates a serious threat to others.
However, when there’s a choice between staying home and feeding your family, safety at work is likely to take second place. Worryingly, the pandemic is exposing the consequences of deteriorating industrial relations in Australia where presenteeism is occurring, particularly for casual and precarious employees. Workers in casual positions fear that if they don’t work they will not be paid or will lose the opportunity to gain work in the future. Consequentially, workers are turning up for work with symptoms while they wait for test results.
What Do We Do if Our Employee Tests Positive?
If you suspect someone may have the virus, or has been exposed, this creates an immediate health risk and you must act immediately. There are six steps you should take to ensure safety at work:
- Isolate – To prevent the possibility of spreading the virus to others, you should remove the person from common areas and ask them to wear a disposable surgical mask.
- Seek Advice – Call your state or territory hotline and follow their advice. For each Australian jurisdiction see the appropriate work health and safety incident notification fact sheet.
- Transport – Ensure the person has transport to a testing facility and from their home to await their results.
- Clean – Disinfect the work areas where the person and contacts have been and do not use those areas again until the cleaning is complete. Always wear PPE while the cleaning takes place.
- Identify and Inform – Find out who the person has had close contact with and follow the advice on quarantine requirements and privacy obligations.
- Review – Undertake a review of the way your organisation conducts work. Do your processes and procedures need to change? It’s a good idea to consult with your workforce on what changes may need to occur to keep them safe while at work.
In Australia, workers’ compensation legislation provides economic support for workers who are unable to work due to contracting COVID-19. For example, the Victorian Government provides a $1500 hardship payment. Also, legislation protects employers from lawsuits filed by their employees if they contract the virus while at work as long as the company is not deemed to be negligent. However, COVID-19 is impacting safety at work particularly in light of your duty of care requirements and the definition of ‘negligence’ as per industrial manslaughter legislation.
See our article, COVID-19 Psychological Health Legal Implications.
How Do We Manage Misinformation About the Virus?
A defining characteristic of this pandemic has been the spread of misinformation, mostly via social media. The World Health Organization (WHO) famously calls the crisis not just a pandemic, but also an “infodemic.” We’re hearing some crazy things like the coronavirus is both caused by 5G wireless technology and is a bioweapon. Cures such as cow urine, bleach, hydroxychloroquine, ephedra and drinking alcohol are being offered. Wellness gurus are pushing immune-boosting supplements and diets.
More and more people are turning to social media to keep up-to-date on developments surrounding the pandemic. For example, Twitter use is up by 12 million daily users and much of the misinformation about the coronavirus remains unchecked and continues to circulate on this platform.
As a health and safety or human resource professional, with responsibility for safety at work, is debunking misinformation an effective strategy? Will we simply reinforce the incorrect information and our efforts will backfire? Although some studies suggest it’s better to just ignore the problem, by and large, people heed factual information, even when that information challenges their ideological commitments. While a backfire effect may occur in some circumstances, it certainly shouldn’t stop us from countering misinformation on social media.
Another concern is if we repeat “fake news” while debunking the information, will we reinforce it? Recent research is showing that it is safe to repeat misinformation when correcting it, even when the audience might be unfamiliar with the misinformation. It is critical though to vigorously counter when misinformation starts to be widely shared.
What Type of Counter-Messaging Works Best?
Silence in the face of misinformation seems likely to be the worst strategy when it comes to managing misinformation. You should act and there are several strategies you can take to debunk misinformation to ensure safety at work.
- Use facts – Provide corrective information and fill in the gaps in understanding and causal explanations.
- Avoid jargon – Use clear, straightforward, and shareable content.
- Use trustworthy and independent sources – Where possible draw on the information from public health authorities and independent scientists because they retain a relatively high level of trustworthiness, particularly during times of crisis.
- Be authentic – Don’t use aggressive language, or shame, ridicule, or marginalise.
- Use storytelling – Narratives can convey science compellingly and memorably.
- Emphasise the gaps – Note the missing logic and flawed strategies that those who push information use.
- Make the facts the hook – Frame the debunking in a manner that makes the correct information the memorable part of the messaging and clearly flag the misinformation as incorrect.
- Know your audience – You’re looking to engage the general public, not the hard-core believer.
We Have a Vaccine, But I’m Not Getting Vaccinated!
Currently, there is no cure or treatment for COVID-19; however, the race is on to find one soon. But in the event, we are successful in developing a safe vaccine, what if your employees refuse to vaccinate? Alarmingly, there is a growing global anti-vaxxer movement that is being fuelled by misinformation and fear.
For health and safety or human resource professionals, making a vaccine available and part of your health regime is critical to ensure safety at work. If your employee refuses to vaccinate, what can you do?
In a recent post by HR Legal, they note that currently, the type of work that your employees do predicates the mandatory requirements for vaccinations. The legislation is a grey area, and will likely become more so when we develop a safe vaccine for COVID-19. However, in the absence of a legislative basis for employers to require employees to be vaccinated, employers should take care in implementing a policy mandating vaccinations, and if doing so, should consider:
- Which vaccinations would staff be required to have? This is likely to depend on your industry and working environment, and, for example, whether your staff are working with vulnerable people.
- How will you respond if an employee refuses a vaccination or refuses to provide evidence that they have already been immunised or have a contraindication to a vaccination? We suggest employers manage this on a case by case basis, bearing in mind that it will not always constitute a valid reason for dismissal if an employee refuses to be vaccinated, particularly if it is not a legal requirement and is not otherwise reasonable in the circumstances.
However, given the seriousness of this pandemic, what is reasonable? In the event of a COVID-19 vaccine, will managing safety at work mean that anti-vaxxers become unemployed because they place others at risk?
See our article, How Will Australians Recover From COVID-19?
COVID-19 is challenging safety at work every day. Work must continue and lock-downs, personal protective equipment, hand hygiene, social distancing and working from home arrangements, are in place to try to ward off the spread of the virus. However, many industries are essential services who are deemed at high risk of transmitting and spreading COVID-19 including those working in health care, transport, sales, cleaning, security, hotel and food services, the cruise industry; and workers in meatpacking, manufacturing, construction, and mining.
There is also a huge amount of misinformation around the virus that is flooding social media and influencing people’s choices. Worryingly, as we search for a vaccine, there is a growing wave of resistance from workers who are indicating that they are unwilling to vaccinate. We have little legislation in place to require our workforce to vaccinate unless they place others at risk. What effect the growing anti-vaxxer sentiment in our workforces, fuelled by misinformation, has on safety at work is yet to play out.