It’s hard to miss the media reports saturated with news about novel coronavirus with significant focus on the number of infected and sadly, the accompanying death toll. The outbreak has now been declared a Public Health Emergency by the World Health Organisation and the Australian Government has stepped up border controls with restrictions placed on entry to those who are from, or have travelled through, mainland China (exceptions are made for Australian citizens). At this point, there is no need to panic, however as an employer, you have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace and the following information will assist you in supporting your employees as we await updates on how this health issue progresses.
WHAT IS CORONAVIRUS?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can make humans and animals sick. They cause illnesses that can range from the common cold to more severe diseases including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The novel coronavirus is called ‘novel’ because it is new. It had not been detected before this outbreak.
According to the World Health Organisation, “common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.” Currently, there is no specific treatment for this virus and no vaccine to prevent it. It is understood that the virus has a fourteen-day incubation period but it has not yet been determined whether or not an infected individual can be infectious within this incubation period.
Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.
Employers may also wish to consider the following practices:
QUARANTINED EMPLOYEES AND EMPLOYER CONSIDERATIONS
Implementing temporary flexible work arrangements with employees who may be impacted should be considered to support the need for home-based quarantine. If it is possible for employees to work from home as they would in the office, or in a modified manner if viable, will assist in maintaining productivity while minimising the risk of infection until a return to work is safe.
Be aware that as an employer, you might be able to direct the taking of leave or assign alternative duties, but you should be wary of merely 'standing down' employees without pay as section 524 of the Fair Work Act would not appear to authorise that". It is the recommendation of HR Staff n’ Stuff that any employee that is required to remain in quarantine should be able to access personal leave and/or annual leave entitlements (if mutually agreed) for this period, if working from home is not a viable option.
Be mindful also that a request for a medical certificate or for an employee to stay away from work must done on reasonable grounds in that there must be a practical link to the coronavirus risk. For example, you can not ask someone who has been to Europe to remain at home for the incubation period unless they transited through mainland China on or after 1 February 2020.
If an employee has been in close contact with a confirmed case of novel coronavirus, they must isolate themselves for 14 days after last contact with the confirmed case.
You cannot direct an employee to remain at home beyond the fourteen-day incubation period. You can require medical clearance prior to returning to work. You should request any returning employee to attend at their closest hospital emergency department to be tested. Note that standard GP’s and Pathology Clinics are not providing testing at the time of this communication.
As the novel coronavirus situation is changing rapidly, it is vital that all employers keep an eye of the DOH and WHO websites for updates. This is still a very new illness without any known vaccines or treatments and the status of transmission still with many unknowns. There is absolutely no need to panic but acting cautiously and with consideration to those who may be impacted is highly recommended.
Please contact the team at HR Staff n’ Stuff if you are unsure of your employer obligations or need further advice on how to manage a coronavirus situation within your business.
The HR Staff n' Stuff team all contribute to our blogs. Enjoy the read!