Managing COVID-19 risk in the workplace will likely be an ongoing challenge for employers in the years ahead. With international borders now re-opening, and workers filtering back into the office, company directors will begin to bear the full brunt of keeping their teams safe. Wade Needham, a General Manager at Fresh Country Farms Australia believes the key to managing this complex work health and safety (WHS) issue is a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach.
“If one of your staff contracts COVID-19 at work, not only do you have to case-manage that from a workers’ compensation perspective, but you need to take measures to limit viral exposure and stop other team-members getting infected. In Australia, one in two people lives with an underlying health vulnerability, so work environments will need to be ‘inclusive’ in that sense – keeping everyone safe from the virus, without locking them up. This is quite a radical shift from older definitions of ‘inclusive workplaces’, which have largely centred on disability,” he said.
Alongside these considerations, tertiary aspects of managing COVID-19 risk will also need to be factored in, to meet WHS obligations.
“It isn’t just the immediate physical health concerns that employers need to prepare for. Directors will need to think about how they manage people in isolation; and how to stop their teams getting swamped with work if lots of people take sick leave at once – both of which scenarios are a breeding ground for psychosocial hazard. For this, you need all business functions to come together and support one another – spreading the workload and intervening where appropriate,” he said.
“This is also a great time to re-evaluate employee experience in general. Good safety outcomes are often a product of really well designed work – work that is designed with people’s tolerances in mind from the outset. Ideally, roles should allow staff to fulfil their potential, whilst enabling them to take their feet off the pedals from time to time.”
Indeed, SafeWork NSW in its guidance material has identified ‘job demand’ and ‘support’ as key areas to watch out for in terms of psychosocial risk. If workloads are too high or staff don’t feel adequately looked after, stress and other psychological outcomes can result. This could mean WHS duty-holders are not meeting their obligations.
One key way to manage psychosocial risk brought about by isolation and increased workload is to outwardly recognise staff for their efforts and offer additional leave days to help workers mentally recalibrate.
“If teams have reduced human-power, they can become incredibly strained. Showing workers you care by letting them take mental health days (without them having to ask) is not only a great token of support, but a good way to reduce the pressure of added workloads,” said Wade.
The ‘without asking’ aspect of this approach is especially important from a hazard ‘prevention’ point of view. Typically employers focus on ‘early intervention’ or ‘recovery’ of psychosocial injuries, and neglect the ‘prevention’ aspect of their WHS obligations, according to Ian Firth of SafeWork NSW.
“A lot of companies have introduced measures like EAP, mental health first aid training, and stigma reduction or awareness raising programs like ‘RUOK Day’. This is great, but these fall under the ‘early intervention’ phase. Companies also need to implement a risk management process – identifying psychosocial hazards and putting measures in place to mitigate them,” he said.
Hear more from Wade Needham and Ian Firth at the Safety in Action Conference hosted by Informa Connect. Wade will discuss his firm’s approach to managing complex WHS issues, while Ian will give important updates on the regulator’s expectations regarding WHS risk management.
This year’s event will be held 14-15 December at the Royal Randwick Racecourse.
Learn more and register.