Published 13/3/2020, Last Updated 30/3/2020

Safework Australia has updated its Advice for PCBUs on addressing Covid19.  Woolworths, Telstra and others have announced unprecedented leave extensions to address the disease.  But the question of how businesses should practically be addressing this disease in the workplace remains uncertain.  ACAPMA has been fielding questions like; What do I say to staff who want to wear masks and gloves?  What do I do with staff that are coming back from overseas holidays? How do I communicate to my customers that we are taking precautions?  In the midst of this crisis these practical concerns are not being widely addressed, mostly because it is really hard to give definitive advice in a fluid situation like this, but that will be the focus of this weeks HR Highlight, a practical view on addressing the risk of Covid19 in the workplace.

A note of caution to start off with.  As identified above this crisis is one that is changing almost hourly, as such it is important that readers view the following in the context of the time it was written and reviewed at.  ACAPMA will take efforts to keep this article up to date, and as such large sections of the following may change over time.

Alert, but not alarmed; Cautious, but not crazy; Professional, but not panicked; these are the sentiments that Australian workplaces should be aiming for in the face of the Covid19 challenge.  But calm and professional response can be hard in the face of a population that is manically stockpiling toilet paper, yet still not grasping the importance of social distancing.  In short, the “correct” and “appropriate” business response to the Covid19 Risk in the Workplace, is not at all clear.  This lack of clarity is compounded by the rapidly changing nature of the crisis (now officially a pandemic).  So what is a business to do to ensure they protect their customers, their staff and their viability?  What are the actual practical steps businesses need to take today, to ensure best practice management of a risk that is evolving and changing on an hourly basis?  Where do you even start?

Where to start?

In assessing the risk, and the businesses response options, it is important to start with a basic understanding of the disease and its transmission.  Even at this initial stage this can be difficult, as the medical community is uncovering new information and rapidly updating their advice.

Safework Australia has recently updated its Advice for PCBUs pertaining to Covid19.  Links to the Advice are included below in the more information section.  The Advice amounts to a reminder that all businesses have a responsibility to assess risk of harm in the business and to manage, control and where possible eliminate that risk. 

The expanded Advice; https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces now includes resources for preparing to work from home, managing mental wellbeing as well as specific guidance on workers compensation in relation to Covid19.

Broadly the Advice highlights that Covid19 is now a known risk and as such all businesses should be including it in their risk review and management process, the Advice highlights three key requirements that all businesses need to undertake;

  • Keep themselves (the business) up to date with the latest advice
  • Comply with the advised required precautions
  • Communicate to staff the precautions required

While it is helpful to have this formal requirement clarified in an official Advice, it is, by nature general, and thus offers little in the way of practical measures that businesses should take based on their unique situation.  But it does offer a place to start.

So, Safework Australia has laid out clearly the current requirements that all businesses must be taking – and remember – failure to take these steps, and to be able to demonstrate you have taken these steps, could result in breaches under the Work Health and Safety Acts.  We need to keep up to date with the information, follow precaution instructions and communicate with staff.  We will explore each of these requirements (along with links and resources to assist businesses in complying) before looking at answering the practical questions faced by fuel wholesale and retail businesses in relation to Covid19.

Latest advice from a trusted source

It is important to start with a regular review of a trusted source.  In this case it is important to have the most up to date information on contraction, transmission and suggested control measures.  In Australia today this means visiting the Department of Health and Smartraveller websites;   https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov,   https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/news-and-updates/coronavirus-covid-19.  In combination these sites provide detailed information on cases, case tracking, control and prevention.

At this point the advice from Health.gov.au is that in Australia cases are linked to either direct travel overseas, close contact with those who have traveled overseas, or close contact to those who have been infected, or potentially infected through the two proceeding methods.  Importantly, as at 30/3/2020 06:00, 2 of the 4,093 cases of Covid19 in Australia have been traced to attendance at a workshop.

Understanding the disease

Again a reminder that more is being uncovered daily, but as at 29/3/2020, according to the Department of Health, the virus is passed from person to person, typically in moisture droplets from coughing or sneezing, either onto a person or onto a surface that is then touched by another person who then touches their mouth or eyes.  The vast majority of people who contract Covid19 recover, with global average mortality (or death rate) of 3-4%, with Australian mortality rate currently (as at 30/3/2020, 06:00) sitting at 0.39%.

Persons most at risk of contracting the disease are those who have traveled to effected areas, as well as those people who come into close contact with them (such as family or work colleagues of the traveler).   The Department of Health now requires travelers returning to Australia from any country go into self isolation for 14 days; https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert.  

Persons most at risk of dying from Covid19 are those whose immune system is compromised, including the elderly, the very young and the already ill.

Symptoms of Covid19 can range from those of a mild cold to pneumonia.  A fever, along with a dry cough and difficulty breathing should be treated seriously and medical attention sought without delay.

Once a person is infected they are contagious but a-symptomatic for between 2 and 10 days.  This is a critical element to understand.  An infected person will have no symptoms at all, no cough, no congestion, no difficulty breathing.  They will feel and appear fit and well.  But they will be contagious and able to infect other people in this time period.  It is this contagious but a-symptomatic period that it is critical to manage.

Current Precautions

Again a note on the changing nature of this crisis, but as at 30/3/2020 06:00, the advice of the Department of Health is that to protect against infection and the spread of the disease;

  • All people, regardless of travel or illness status, should;
    • Wash their hands thoroughly and often, drying with a paper towel if possible
    • Avoid touching face, particularly eyes, nose and mouth
    • Use hand sanitizer regularly if unable to get to water and soap for washing
    • Use disposable tissues to cover nose and mouth while sneezing, and to immediately dispose of the tissues
    • Cover nose and mouth while coughing, not with your hand, but with the inside of your elbow
    • STAY HOME and if you must leave your home keep 1.5 metres away from other people and avoid touching hard surfaces (and washing your hands after you do)
  • All persons who have returned to Australia from travelling internationally should;
    • Follow all of the precautions above as well as, self isolate at home.  This means staying at least a metre apart from other persons in the house, sleeping in a different room and regularly sanitizing high-tough areas like door handles, taps and buttons.  These persons should also monitor their health for at least 14 days after returning.  This means regularly taking temperature with a thermometer as well as observing for other symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing and reporting to a doctor if a fever or symptoms present.

Communicating with staff

It is a requirement to, and important risk management approach that staff be informed of risks and that the appropriate controls be communicated.  This means that businesses should be passing on the latest information to staff.

The Department of Health has produced (and is updating) Guides and Resources for Staff that should be posted at the workplace and distributed to mobile staff.  Links to these resources are included below.

Requirement Recap

To recap, Safework Australia has laid out clearly the current requirements that all businesses must be taking.  We need to;

  1. keep up to date with the information (through visiting trusted sources like the Department of Health regularly and amending any approaches as advised),
  2. follow precaution instructions (through promoting and following good hygiene and isolation requirements), and
  3. communicate with staff (through providing the Department of Health Guides, and communication on any business policy or procedure changes).

In this rapidly evolving crisis this will be a daily task for managers of businesses.

Practical Considerations in Wholesale and Retail Fuel

While the standard requirements of understanding and assessing the risk of Covid19 in a business is a first step, the practical concerns and approaches are still causing angst within the industry.  ACAPMA has recently received the following questions, which are provided by way of general information for Members. 

Staff Member Returning from international travel?

Question: 

I have a staff member due to return from international  travel tomorrow.  She is a console operator working with people and food.  There is no way for her to work from home.  Should I be asking her to stay at home?  If so for how long and does that get paid and how?

Answer: 

Based on your question it appears, having checked the Department of Health website https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov, that international travelers are required by the Department of Health to self isolate at home for 14 days.  Which means that the employee can access any accrued sick leave for this time.  If the employee does not have sufficient sick leave accrued the business should explore with the employee other options, including the possible provision of special paid sick leave.

If the employee is casual the business should seriously consider if there is a capacity to extend a compassionate type sick leave payment to the employee for this time period.  There has been some concern expressed from Members that paying a casual for their isolation period may send a mixed signal and lead to confusion over their status.  This need not be the case (see below for Casual on Isolation case).

Casual Staff Member Isolating?

Question: 

I have a staff member who is required to self isolate, but they are a casual, can I still pay them or will that get me into trouble? Will they be confused and think they are a permanent now?

Answer: 

If the employee is casual and is required (or directed to) self isolate, the business should seriously consider if there is a capacity to extend a compassionate type sick leave payment to the employee for this time period.  There has been some concern expressed from Members that paying a casual for their isolation period may send a mixed signal and lead to confusion over their status.  This need not be the case.  As long as the employee is clearly classified and paid as a casual, and the extension of the special compassionate paid sick leave is clearly and completely communicated, then there is little risk of confusion.  “It is understood that you are required to self isolate for 14 days following your recent travel.  We understand that this a stressful time, and that having to worry about paying bills is not going to make that any easier, so at this time, despite your status as a casual employee who is not entitled to paid leave, the business would like to extend a compassionate sick payment in the amount of 2 weeks of your usual roster (pre leave roster) to assist you.  Look after yourself and reach out if you have any questions”.

Staff want to wear masks?

Question: 

I have had questions from staff, they want to wear face masks.  They are customer service people and I am worried about them spooking our customers.  Do I have to let the staff wear masks or can I say no?

Answer: 

This is a common question in retail.  The business needs to recognise and manage the psychological risk that the stress of Covid19 is causing staff.  It would put the business at risk to say no to a staff member who wants to wear a mask, they may then develop a psychological injury due to the fear and the refusal by the business.  This risk of harm to the employee is considered in the context of the potential risk to the business in a retail environment, with both elements being important.

Given the nature of Covid19, as a pandemic, and the high level of awareness in the community, it has reached a point where, with the right communication, the business can allay the fears of customers through the wearing of masks and gloves.  At a retail service station food is a key offering, and the importance in the midst of a pandemic of projecting the fact that the business and the staff take the safety of customers seriously is paramount in protecting this key offering.  While it may be initially off-putting for a customer to see a console operator wearing a mask and gloves this can be allayed with the right communication – such as a poster on the bowsers and at the counter to the effect of “We are not sick, or scared, we are just being cautious to protect you, rest assured we are still smiling wide when we see you, and look forward to seeing you soon”.   It is noted that using this approach means having access to masks and signage (which may need to be taken down if mask access is reduced).

This, and other practical concerns, controls, information and resources, including customer and staff posters can be found at; https://acapmag.com.au/2020/03/hr-highlight-covid-19-keeping-customers-and-staff-safe/

What leave and payments apply when?

Many of the questions we are seeing are from businesses that are playing the “what if” game. While planning to understand and prepare for all eventualities is a great thing to do generally in business, in a situation where the Department of Health is making decisions on who will and will not need to self isolate, and case numbers and connections are growing, it is much more helpful to focus on what is actually happening at the business now, and addressing that.

When it comes to staff either being directed by the Department of Health or by the Business to self isolate, the big questions are what should they be paid? What leave can they access?

To assist in navigating the many permutations of these questions ACAPMA has produced a Quick Reference Table – https://acapmag.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID-19-Leave-and-Payment-Guide.pdf .

It is important to note that the table covers minimums only, businesses are free to offer staff additional leave and payments if they choose to.

School Shutdowns?

With schools across the country either shutting down or strongly suggesting that parents keep children home in the face of the health crisis, questions abound about the implication for employers.

Where an employee is unable to work due to caring for children due to school closure or restriction, businesses should be offering staff access to accrued personal and carers leave as well as any other accrued leave. Businesses can consider offering leave in advance where appropriate. And as always, where the business is able to, there is nothing preventing the payment of staff over and above the leave entitlements on a compassionate basis.

Shutting up shop due to declining sales?

Members that are facing decisions about continued trading, in the face of downturn in sales and subsequent financial pressure are encouraged to reach out to ACAPMA as soon as possible to explore the employment implications of such decisions as well as the impact the community sensitive nature of retail fuel business closure may have on your community.

Boarder Closures – what about cross border workers?

The sealing of State borders in a federation nation is a rarity, and one that is resulting in confusion as to what is and is not allowed. The situation is fluid, though at this point it is understood that staff who have to cross a border to attend work at a fuel retail or wholesale site will be allowed to do so. See; https://acapmag.com.au/2020/03/borders-closures-what-about-cross-border-employees-travelling-to-work/ for the most up to date details on border closure and its impact on work.

Got Questions?

This is part of a larger and ongoing conversation, if you have practical concerns and questions, please email employment@acapma.com.au and we will endeavour to address your questions directly, but also anonymously here, so that as an industry we can take some of the confusion out of the situation.

Where to now?

This is an evolving situation.  ACAPMA reminds Members to keep up to date with the information, to reach out with any questions, and to try to avoid falling into the toilet paper hording mindset!

More Information

Department of Health – for up to date information on the disease, its cases and control measures;  

·       Latest information and precautions – https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert  

·       Latest statistics – https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-current-situation-and-case-numbers

·       General Information Resource (appropriate to pass to staff) – https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-what-you-need-to-know

·       Frequently Asked Questions (appropriate to pass to staff) – https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-frequently-asked-questions

·       Information on Social Distancing (appropriate to pass to staff) – https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-information-on-social-distancing

·       Information on Masks Resource (appropriate to pass to staff) – https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-information-on-the-use-of-surgical-masks

·       Information for Travellers (appropriate to pass to staff where relevant) – https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2020/03/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-international-travellers_0.pdf

·       Self Isolation Guidance Resource (appropriate to pass to staff) – https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-isolation-guidance

Smarttraveller – for up to date information on travel restrictions and self isolation after travelling destinations; 

·       General information – https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/news-and-updates/coronavirus-covid-19,

·       Travelling and Covid19 – https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/COVID-19-australian-travellers,

Safework Australia – for the Advice for PCBUs on Covid19;  https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/coronavirus-covid-19-advice-pcbus

POSTER RESOURCES

Customer and Staff poster resources from ACAPMA, as well as practical information and advice for retail sites can be found here; https://acapmag.com.au/2020/03/hr-highlight-covid-19-keeping-customers-and-staff-safe/

Hygiene Posters for Workplaces

Here to help

HR Highlights are things to consider, implement and watch out for in your business. They are provided as general advice and you should seek further advice on your situation by contacting the ACAPMA Employment Professionals its free for members.

ACAPMA membership is affordable at only $880 per year for a single site and valuable with sites gaining HR advice support and representation as well as a raft of other benefits and discounts.  Click https://acapma.com.au/membership_information/ to learn more about ACAPMA membership.

Elisha Radwanowski BCom(HRM & IR)
Executive Manager for Employment and Training
ACAPMA