Workplace Health and Safety with Coronavirus

As The Coronavirus continues to spread, Safe Work Australia has advised that businesses must have measures in place to protect workers at risk from coronavirus. This is something we believe all Australian business owners and managers must take seriously, as this virus could reach ‘Pandemic’ stage in the near future and the The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern.’

Under the WHS act, Businesses must identify hazards at the workplace, and the associated risks, and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks, or to minimise the risks if elimination is not reasonably practicable.

So what are some steps you should take to fulfill your obligations and minimise the chance of your staff contracting this deadly virus while at work?

The first step is to assess the risks and to do this we must understand the virus:

How the Coronavirus spreads

According to the Australian Government Department of Health, the virus is most likely spread through:

  • Close contact with an infectious person
  • contact with droplets sneezed or coughed by an infected person
  • touching objects or surfaces (such as door handles or rails) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then rubbing your eyes or your mouth.

The risk of contamination through touching infected surfaces cannot be underestimated. A recent article in Journal Hospital Infection suggests that the novel virus can survive on some surfaces for more than a week

Do not rely on signs of the illness in staff members as a warning. This virus has an incubation period of between two and ten days. During this period, (according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), it is possible that an infected person could test negative for the virus.

What is effective in prevention?

 The first thing people normally think of for preventing viruses is surgical masks, but despite their widespread use, the Department of Health advises against them: “Surgical masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus disease from spreading it to others. If you are well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask as there is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent transmission in public.”

Medical organisations worldwide, meanwhile, are united on recommending continual hand sanitisation to guard against getting the disease from surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus. 

Any plan to minimise risks should contain an assessment of surfaces people will continually touch, such as handrails, door handles, taps in bathrooms, toilet buttons etc. and a way of minimising transmission through these surfaces.

Some things you could do:

  • Place handy bottles of hand sanitizer near railings and doors for people to use after they have touched those surfaces.
  • Ensure there are always adequate supplies of hand sanitizer in bathrooms and toilets.
  • Assign people to regularly disinfect all common surfaces people regularly touch in the workplace.

Supply latex gloves to staff who are dealing directly with the members of the public.

Other important measures:

  • Keep staff members at home who are showing any of the symptoms of the virus. Even though it may just be something like a common cold. It is just not worth the risk.

You may also consider the following if they are possible to implement:

  • Discourage travel for meetings or seminars. Consider doing as much communication as possible electronically, by videoconferencing, Skype or by phone.
  • Allow staff to telecommute if they are able to perform their functions adequately with a laptop at home.

From the information that’s currently available online, we know that the virus has continued to spread, despite vigorous attempts by different governments to contain it. It will in all probability be with us for quite some time. Vaccines are in development, both the University of Queensland and US biotech firm Moderna have developed test vaccines, but it will be at least a year before anything is available to the public.

Putting it into context

During the 2017/2018 flu season, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that in the United States 48 million people were infected with Influenza, 959,000 were hospitalised and 79,400 died. In Australia, influenza killed 1,255 people that year. It is very unlikely that Coronavirus will kill as many people.
The good news is, that by taking these measures against Coronavirus infection, you will also protect your staff from influenza which is a very real threat.