A safe return to workplaces while managing the risk implications to your insurances

As COVID-19 vaccination rates rise across Australia, many staff with the option to work from home are returning to their workplaces part-time while logging the rest of their hours remotely. This is a more challenging prospect for businesses than it sounds, not to mention the possible implications for your insurances.

According to a CSIRO and NBN Co study, one in five workers are expected to be home-based as pandemic restrictions lift. That compares to one in 20 pre-pandemic, but this differs across occupations. The study found those most likely to keep working from home include:

  • Business and systems analysts and programmers
  • Database and system administrators plus ICT security, network and support professionals
  • Financial and insurance clerks
  • Arts workers
  • Architects, designers, planners and surveyors
  • Media, sales, marketing and PR professionals.

Managers are among the four in five workers the study says will resume face-to-face work. So how can your business usher in a safe return to work? And what can it mean in terms of your insurance?

Guiding a new COVID normal

According to the business.gov website, there are a couple of ways to help keep your workers safe and minimise the spread of infection:

  • Allow workers to work remotely, if possible
  • Continue physical distancing regulations between people (1.5m minimum)
  • Encourage staff to practice good hygiene, including frequent and thorough handwashing and using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • Raise awareness about how to spot infection through symptoms such as loss of the sense of taste, fever, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath
  • Direct staff not to attend work if they are unwell or have any of those symptoms. Instead ask they get tested promptly and stay isolated until the results are received
  • Regularly clean and disinfect your workplace
  • Remind workers and visitors about COVID safety measures through signs and posters.

Air flow
Interestingly, when it comes to installation of anti-COVID clear plastic barriers or partitions between staff and/or visitors, these may not be suitable for your workplace. Research has found those structures reduce normal airflow and ventilation in a workplace, leading to a build-up of viral aerosol particles in ‘dead zones’. Associate Professor Craig Dalton, a leading public health expert from Newcastle University, agrees, instead urging businesses to focus on optimising ventilation as the Omicron variant spreads. 

Vaccination
The Federal Government has declared vaccination should be voluntary, so most employers can’t force workers to be vaccinated. However, in a number of Australian states, vaccination has been mandated for certain industries and is now a condition of employment e.g. aged-care workers, the WA mining industry, healthcare workers, the list goes on. and for ‘

Employer and Insurance – protecting yourself with the right cover

Ensure your safety measures are backed up by science, regulations, and the law. Businesses have five main obligations under state and territory health and safety laws regarding workplaces, including a duty to:

  • Workers
  • Other people in the workplace
  • Maintain safe facilities and workplaces
  • Offer information, instruction, training and supervision
  • Consult with staff about workplace safety issues.

Despite trying to do your upmost to meet health and safety obligations as an employer, given the current environment it is expected there may be an increase in employment practices claims from employees alleging employers failed to take proper steps to reduce health and safety risks for their workforce, to claims alleging employers discriminated against employees with COVID-19 concerns.  Whether claims are intentional or not, employers can still be found liable. This is a risk business owners need to factor into risk management measures in the form of Employment Practices Liability (EPL) Insurance and health and safety measures.

EPL Insurance is designed to cover losses the employer becomes legally obligated to pay in connection with EPL claims that allege a “wrongful” employment-related act or practice. EPL Insurance covers similar forms of employer misconduct including things like wrongful termination, discrimination, privacy breaches and negligence claims among others. For more information on how this type of insurance can protect your business, please reach out to us.

In terms of risk management, there are a number of resources available to help manage your health and safety obligations, including Safe Work Australia and from a mental health perspective – Beyond Blue.

  • If you employ people who are vulnerable, i.e. have a greater risk of serious illness if they catch COVID-19, Safe Work Australia explains how to carry out a risk assessment and define what’s ‘reasonably practical’ to manage the COVID-19 risks for vulnerable workers.
  • The Safe Work Australia’s web page offers a buyers’ guide for personal protective equipment.
  • Beyond Blue offers tips for fostering a mentally healthy workplace e.g. how you can ease staff back into a new routine, being mindful of their mental health and psychosocial issues.

Workers’ Compensation Insurance

As we all move about more freely despite the spread of COVID, businesses are at risk of being sued by staff who catch COVID-19 at work. ABC News Online estimated that workers had lodged 3,000 such claims as of early November. Most claims have come from retail, public administration and safety, healthcare, social assistance, accommodation, food services and transport sectors. If your company’s negligence, deliberate or otherwise, was the cause, that claim could succeed in the courts.

The risk profile for each sector and business is unique, which is why it’s advisable to talk with us, as your broker, to help you understand the potential insurance and risk implications associated with returning to work, and how these can be managed.

Useful links:

COVID-19 public health orders
https://covid19.swa.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/other-resources/covid-19-public-health-orders

Federal Health Department
https://www.health.gov.au/

The risk profile for each sector and business is unique, which is why it’s advisable to talk with us, as your broker, to help you understand the potential insurance and risk implications associated with returning to work, and how these can be managed.

EPL Insurance is designed to cover losses the employer becomes legally obligated to pay in connection with EPL claims that allege a “wrongful” employment-related act or practice. EPL Insurance covers similar forms of employer misconduct including things like wrongful termination, discrimination, privacy breaches and negligence claims among others. For more information on how this type of insurance can protect your business, please reach out to us.

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