As restrictions further ease in Victoria Katherine in the NT is in another lockdown. As the Christmas season approaches the differences in the requirements for COVID Safe operations are very clear when looking from one State to another. One of the more obvious differences is the requirement for staff to wear face masks or not. As the government mask mandates are due to end in VIC and NSW on 15 December, and the role of mask wearing in determining if an employee needs to isolate after a visit by a covid positive customer, it is critical for businesses to consider what their approach to Masks will be now, and to implement the policies in the workplace that recognise masks not only as a sometimes mandated government health control, but also as standard PPE during the transition to COVID as endemic in the community. ACAPMA explores these considerations in a detailed Q & A.
“COVID has to really be thought of as two things, when it comes to the impact on business, and the required business response” explains ACAPMAs Elisha Radwanowski.
“On the one hand there is the pandemic and the public health measures that were required to address it, and on the other hand there is the workplace risk and the controls that are appropriate to remove or reduce the chance of that risk impacting staff”
“During the active pandemic phase these two elements were addressed by the same government controlled public health measures, but as we move towards an endemic setting the importance of recognising the workplace risk to staff, and putting into place appropriate controls for that risk, becomes ever more important” continued Elisha.
“As the mask mandates lift in some places, and are likely to be implemented in other places, it is time for businesses to recognise COVID as a workplace risk, do their risk assessments and implement controls for different outbreak level settings, including masks”
“It is also important to note that we are not out of the woods yet. In NSW we are ‘living with COVID’ but exposure of staff to an infected person is likely to result in that staff having to isolate for between 7 and 14 days regardless of test result if the staff member is not wearing a mask. In QLD the borders are set to open in mid December and the isolation requirements are similarly predicated on if the staff member is wearing a mask or not. South Australia is following a similar setting for exposures as is WA and NT. The only outlier at the moment is VIC who yesterday announced that only household contacts will need to isolate, meaning that a staff member exposed to an infected customer only needs to get a test and isolate until they receive a negative result” outlines Elisha.
“With the nationwide staffing pressures as the industry gears up for what is hoped to be a bumper holiday season having staff out due to exposure isolation is a massive blow to the business, and in many States and settings, masks can be a big part of preventing that, along with vaccination and distance”
“So now is the time to look at what the business will require of staff when it comes to masks, and to communicate that to them now, particularly if the business decides that masks will be a part of local outbreak response controls, or will remain after the government mandates are removed” concluded Elisha.
Q & A WITH ACAPMA
If the government has not required masks to be worn, why should I make the staff wear them?
The government does not have a requirement under the Work Health and Safety Laws to identify risks to staff and to implement appropriate controls to remove or mitigate those risks, the business does. That said, it is based on the available expert information that the business should do the assessment of risk and design the implementation of controls, and if the highest medical officer in the State has determined that the risk to the public of COVID does not require masks to be controlled effectively, then it would be reasonable for the business to take this into consideration in assessing the need for masks in the business. If the nature of the work or workplace was such that the risk was higher than in the general public (like workers who are cheek-by-jowl on an assembly or processing line, or in a hospital setting) then there would be an argument that higher controls that apply to the general public should be applied.
Will I get into trouble if I am not making staff wear masks (when the government has removed the mandate)?
Once the government mandate is removed the issue of COVID infection onsite is a Workplace Safety issue and the safety regulators will be asking the question. They will be keen to understand what process the business has gone through in terms of identifying the risk, assessing the current risk, designing and implementing appropriate control responses. The business will get into trouble if it does not have a plan, or if it has not addressed COVID as a risk onsite.
If the government mandate is gone can I get in trouble for forcing staff to wear a mask?
No. As the mask is PPE in response to a workplace risk you can not get in trouble for requiring staff to wear them. There is of course a process that has to be followed that includes consultation (letting the staff know when and how they will be required to wear a mask), exemptions (provision for medically appropriate exemptions) and alternatives (such as Face Shields). ACAPMA can assist members with this process if required.
Learnings for all businesses
“What we know, after two years of constant change and several false celebrations, is that COVID is here to stay and is likely not done throwing us curve balls. Local outbreaks are going to happen, particularly in those States that have been behind previously closed borders, and when there is a local outbreak it is more than likely even if the government did not previously have a mask mandate, that they will come in quickly”
“I would encourage every business to do their assessment and implement at the least a staged approach to mask wearing, where the businesses ongoing review of the risk may result in the escalation of controls, or indeed the government mandate may required the escalation of controls. One this framework is drafted it should be provided to the staff so that they are aware, and resources, such as posters, for each stage should be ready to go” notes Elisha.
An example of such an approach would be;
MEMO for Staff – COVID risk controls
This memo is a note to let you know that the business has continued to recognise and review the risk that COVID poses to staff in the workplace, and as settings change the business will continue to monitor the current COVID status in the community, the health advice and settings from the government and local community and risk factors to determine the business response to the risk of COVID in the workplace.
At this time the business is operating on a staged or escalating control model where additional controls become appropriate based on the factors noted above (amount of COVID, community concerns, health advice and government settings).
Risk Level: Lowest risk (either due to high vaccination or low levels of virus or both)
Controls: Social Distancing, Check In, Regular cleaning and sanitising of high touch points
Risk Level: Low risk (either due to high vaccination or low levels of virus or both)
Controls: Masks, Social Distancing, Check In, Regular cleaning and sanitising of high touch points
Risk Level: Medium risk (either due to broad changing of virus levels or general area outbreak)
Controls: Masks, Sneeze Guards, Social Distancing, Check In, Minimal staff cross over, COVID cleaning and sanitising of high touch points (every 1-2 hours depending on customer numbers)
Risk Level: High risk (either due to local area outbreak or vulnerable community)
Controls: Masks, Sneeze Guards, Social Distancing, Check In, Contactless staff cross over, COVID cleaning and sanitising of high touch points (every 1-2 hours depending on customer numbers)
The process of continual assessment means that the stage we are at now may change and it is important for staff to be ready for such changes.
As with all workplace health and safety controls it is a requirement of the role that staff utilise the controls that are identified and required by the business. Including Masks where required as an important Personal Protective Equipment. Medical exemptions and alternative controls such as Face Shields are available.
As noted the pace of change may mean we have to go from one stage to another with very little notice, so if you have any concerns about these important work health and safety controls and their application please reach out now.
Here to Help
HR Highlights are things to consider, implement and watch out for in your business. They are provided as general information for you to consider and do not constitute advice. You should seek further advice on your situation by contacting your legal advisor. ACAPMA members can access resources and receive advice, guidance and support from the ACAPMA employment professionals via firstname.lastname@example.org , it is free for members. ACAPMA Membership delivers this and more benefits, see; https://acapma.com.au/membership/ for more information.
Elisha Radwanowski BCom(HRM&IR)