The reality is that all employers in Australia are required to design and implement a COVID-19 safety recovery plan tailored for their workplace, that includes physical health and safety as well as mental health and wellbeing.
As Tony Morris, Deloitte Health, Safety, and Wellbeing lead partner says: “No one plans to have incidents causing illness, injury or death at work. But it doesn’t mean your approach to health and safety should be unplanned either. It is critical to give careful, consultative consideration to assess the risks to health and safety, to develop the right response and commit to implementing it.”
To return to work employers need such a plan to be in place to coincide with the release of community public health controls. Safety regulators around Australia, including the states, territories and Comcare for Commonwealth employees, expect employers to have these plans in place between four to six weeks of the respective government announcements to lift restrictions.
As the first territory or state to record no COVID-19 infections for the relevant health period (two weeks), the Northern Territory was the first to ease restrictions. The NT government provided five weeks for employers in the territory to have their plan in place, which came into effect on 5 June 2020.
A recent LinkedIn survey shows that 71% of Australians want to return to work in a hybrid manner. An earlier survey reported that more than 66% of Australians believed that June 2020 was the right time to return to work. The remainder thought it was too soon, that the risk was too great, and we should remain in isolation. These surveys reflect various international surveys including a Glassdoor report in the New York Times that 72% of US workers who are working remotely are ready to return to the office.
Morris says: “The reality is that employers can play a vital role in helping to minimise the spread of COVID-19 by planning adequately and managing this risk to health and safety.” Adding that: “Although there is concern about a perceived complacency around physical distancing, my vote is with the majority to commence a return to work, as long as it is controlled and safe.”
While acknowledging the potential risk for more infections and the possibility of more deaths from COVID-19 complications, Morris believes there is significant risk to society from not returning to work. He says: “The risk to our economy, our businesses and the mental health and wellbeing of our workforce and community is very real.”
He references the dilemma Australia faces as summed up by Deloitte Access Economics leader, Dr Pradeep Philip: “The pandemic is not eliminated. It can rear its ugly head again…and that is because recovery will not be a linear move from health to economic health. It will be a policy dance of sorts, with the need to carefully balance economic cost with health risks.”
The reality is that most employers already have a workplace health and safety (WHS) management system in place Morris points out. “The difference with COVID-19 is that employers must now work with this additional COVID-19 risk ever-present, until it’s extinguished by vaccine or other means.
“Add to this the updates and changes coming from our health and safety authorities with different timing in each state and territory, and we have a challenge on our hands.
“The risk COVID-19 brings to our workplaces must be assessed in the context of operations, work environment, workforce and health and safety risk profile. Everyone would like to have a prescriptive list of what to do, but a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.”
He explains this is the reason that Australia has a principle/risk-based safety legislation that requires employers to tailor their safety systems based on the nuances of their work and workplaces.
Morris says: “Our national WHS policy maker, Safe Work Australia, has designed 10 principles guiding employers on returning to work through COVID-19. They have provided checklists and guides. However, these will not do the risk assessments for you, nor will they provide your COVID-19 safety recovery plan.”
To help identify areas for continual improvement to the safety recovery plan and its implementation Deloitte has a free online self-assessment tool available for everyone to access to support the firm’s six-point COVID-19 Safety Recovery Plan. This tool will assist to answer questions such as:
- What new mental health and wellbeing risks are my staff exposed to?
- What do we do if we have a suspected COVID-19 infection in the workplace?
- How do we continue to manage and maintain people working from home safely?
- Have we identified how to protect our vulnerable employees?
- If so, how do we ensure we are protecting our vulnerable employees?
For essential services – how can we comply with physical distance COVID-19 controls and still work effectively? Etc.