On 8 May 2020, the Hon Scott Morrison MP announced a national three step plan to relax COVID-19 restrictions, with states and territories to decide when each step will be implemented locally. This means restrictions will ease at different speeds across Australia, with each state and territory making decisions based on their public health situation and local conditions.
For some employers, the gradual easing of public health restrictions means considering transitioning workers currently working from home back to the usual workplace. If this is you, the information on this page will help to ensure a safe transition back to work.
For up-to-date information on restrictions in your jurisdiction that apply to you or your workplace, you should visit your relevant state and territory government website.
How do I meet my WHS duties as workers transition back to the usual workplace?
To ensure the health and safety of your workers, you should:
- check any relevant advice from your state or territory government and make sure your business or undertaking can operate. Make a plan to adjust your operations for any restrictions that may be in place.
- in consultation with workers and any elected Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs), conduct a risk assessment and implement control measures to eliminate, or if not reasonably practicable, minimise identified risks, taking into account:
- the latest health and Commonwealth, state and territory government advice on COVID-19, including appropriate physical distancing measures in workplaces, hygiene practices and how workers are supported in adhering to this advice
- local conditions, for instance if there has been an identified localised outbreak
- your operational environment, including whether your workplace can support all your workers returning at the same time while meeting the latest Commonwealth, state and territory government requirements and whether some workers or categories of workers have a greater need to be in the workplace than others
- personal circumstances of the workers, such as whether they have been classified as a vulnerable worker (see our information on vulnerable workers), have caring responsibilities for a vulnerable person or there is a vulnerable person in their household
- new risks that arise from any resulting changes to work practices, procedures or the work environment. For example, where any plant (equipment), workplace layouts or systems have been changed to comply with physical distancing requirements, you may wish to organise a walk-through of the workplace with HSRs prior to all workers returning to ensure health and safety risks are identified and managed.
- consult with your workers and HSRs on changes to the work environment and arrangements for transitioning back to the usual workplace, and encourage workers to raise any WHS concerns with their representatives or direct manager. Remember to follow existing workplace policies and procedures
- review and, if necessary, update any WHS policies and your emergency plan, in consultation with workers and HSRs. Consider how you will manage and respond to a potential further outbreak of COVID-19. You should share relevant information with workers and HSRs about any WHS policies you’ve put in place or updated in response to COVID-19 (for example, incident reporting processes) and any changes to emergency plans
- consult, co-operate and co-ordinate with building owners and other businesses you work with or share premises with, about how they will discharge their WHS duties when they interact with your workers
- in consultation with workers and HSRs, review control measures periodically, including:
- as the environment changes (for example, in response to localised outbreaks of COVID-19, changes to public health orders or an increased number of staff in the usual workplace using facilities such as bathrooms and lifts), and
- as new information on workplace risks becomes available
- instruct workers to tell you if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 or have been tested for COVID-19. You should direct workers to stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19
- inform workers about their workplace entitlements (such as access to paid leave) if they have COVID-19 symptoms or they are required to self-isolate and set clear expectations and procedures, in consultation with your workers and their representatives, on what will happen if a worker contracts COVID-19. Remember, workers who have been isolated after testing positive for COVID-19 must not return to work until they have fully recovered and have met the criteria for clearance from isolation. States and territories may manage clearance from isolation differently. Contact your state or territory health helpline for further advice.
Depending on your circumstances, you may need to:
- modify workplace attendance arrangements where the organisation cannot maintain physical distancing in the workplace (for example, rostering workers to work from the office or home on different days or alternative weeks, staggering shifts or facilitating more flexible start and finish times)
- review workplace checklists and re-design the workplace environment, procedures and practices to ensure physical distancing, cleaning and hygiene
- ensure workstations are correctly set up to protect against musculoskeletal injuries (for example, provide guidance to your workers on how to set up a safe work environment)
- consider arrangements for deliveries, contractors and visitors attending the workplace (for example, organising contactless deliveries and limiting non-essential visitors)
- provide workers with PPE where appropriate, as well as appropriate cleaning, disinfectant and hygiene products. You should also provide proper training and instruction in the use of any PPE and cleaning, disinfectant and hygiene products provided, and
- appoint a contact person in your business that workers can talk to about any concerns.
How can I support my workers who are concerned about transitioning back into the usual workplace?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful and uncertain time for all Australians. Concerns about physical risks, such as exposure to COVID-19, work-related violence, or changes to the work environment or work demands can create additional risks to psychological health. You must eliminate or minimise the risk to psychological health and safety arising from work so far as is reasonably practicable. You should:
- eliminate or minimise physical risks and check control measures do not introduce additional safety risks
- talk to your workers about any agreed measures you have put in place to minimise risks
- respond appropriately to signs a worker may be concerned or anxious about returning to the usual workplace (for example, it is important to intervene early and provide early access to assistance)
- set realistic and clear expectations, workloads, roles and tasks and monitor work levels. Consult with workers and HSRs on any changes in these areas
- offer your workers flexibility where possible (for example, to start work at a slightly earlier or later time to avoid peak times for public transport)
- maintain regular communication with your workers and encourage workers to stay in contact with each other. Implement systems of work to enable this, where relevant
- stay informed with information from official sources and share relevant information with your workers and HSRs as it becomes available
- inform workers about their workplace entitlements if they have COVID-19 symptoms or they are required to self-quarantine (for example, access to paid leave)
- provide workers with a central place to find workplace information and a point of contact to discuss their concerns (for example HSRs), and
- provide information about mental health and other support services available to your workers (for example, employee assistance programs, employee organisations or the Australian Government HeadtoHealth website).
Do I need to organise additional cleaning before I transition my workers back to the usual workplace?
The main way COVID-19 spreads from person to person is through contact with respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The droplets may fall directly onto the person’s eyes, nose or mouth if they are in close contact with the infected person. Airborne transmission of COVID-19 can also occur, with the greatest risk in indoor, crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces. A person may also be infected if they touch a surface contaminated with the COVID-19 virus and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes before washing their hands. Research shows that the COVID-19 virus can survive on some surfaces for prolonged periods of time. A key way you can protect workers and others from the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is by implementing appropriate cleaning and disinfecting measures for your workplace. When and how often your workplace should be cleaned and disinfected will depend on the outcome of your risk assessment, including the likelihood of contaminated material being present.
In considering whether additional cleaning arrangements need to be implemented prior to workers returning to the usual workplace, you should consider:
- How long it has been since the premises was last occupied, noting that the virus can survive on some surfaces for prolonged periods of time. More frequent cleaning will be required once workers return.
- The frequency of cleaning that has taken place prior to workers returning. If the workplace has been occupied prior to workers returning and routinely cleaned during that time, you may not need to organise additional cleaning. However, you should consider whether there are any areas within the premises that may not have received routine cleaning. For example, if routine cleaning was maintained for common areas but not for meeting rooms that may have been occupied during that time.
For further information, refer to our:
Remember, you must consult with workers and HSRs on health and safety matters relating to COVID-19, including what control measures to put in place in your workplace.
Who is responsible for cleaning and implementing other control measures in my workplace, including shared premises or facilities?
If your business operates in a shared premises you must consult, co-ordinate and co-operate with other employers, the building owner and facilities manager to ensure that appropriate cleaning and other control measures (such as physical distancing) are implemented to minimise the risks associated with COVID-19. This includes shared facilities such as lobbies, lifts, change rooms and common meeting spaces.
You may also need to discuss with your building owner or facilities manager whether the evacuation and other safety processes for the building have been reviewed in the context of COVID-19, including in relation to evacuation procedures and location of designated assembly points.
Working with your building owner or facilities manager is a very important step to successfully minimise the risks of exposure to COVID-19 and meet your WHS duties at the workplace.
Do I need to test workplace facilities before I transition my workers back to the usual workplace?
In some circumstances you may need to test machinery, equipment and appliances, as well as other plant and structures, to ensure they are safe to use and do not give rise to new WHS risks.
For example, restarting Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems can carry significant risks to the health and safety of workers and other people in the building, particularly where they have not been maintained and inspected in accordance with relevant regulations and standards. You can refer to our guidance on Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems for information on the risks and the steps you should take as an employer to eliminate or minimise these risks.
You should also think about checking drinking water systems, toilets and hand washing facilities to ensure they are all functioning correctly and are well stocked.
Do I need to organise a workstation assessment for workers transitioning back to the usual workplace?
In some circumstances you may need to organise a workstation assessment for workers returning to the usual workplace, particularly where there have been changes to the workplace environment. For example, where a workstation has been adjusted during the re-design of the physical layout of the workplace or the worker is using new equipment, such as an office chair.
Depending on the circumstances, it is generally recommended that you:
- provide your workers with information on setting up an ergonomic workstation
- develop in consultation with workers and HSRs, and provide to workers, a health and safety checklist and workstation self-assessment for your workers to use
- discuss equipment requirements with your workers, such as chairs, monitors, keyboards and mouses. Workers may have taken equipment home if they were working from home or equipment may have been moved or become lost while the workplace was unoccupied, and
- have ongoing discussions with your workers about their workstation setup to ensure the workstation set up is not creating additional risks or the need for any additional equipment.
If workers have purchased new equipment while working from home that they would like to bring with them to the usual workplace, you may need to discuss compatibility issues and how they will safely transport equipment to the workplace.
When discussing working from home arrangements with workers, you must allow workers to raise and express their views on WHS issues that may directly or indirectly arise, just like in any other consultation process regarding workplace arrangements. You must genuinely take the views of workers into account when making decisions and advise them of your decision. This includes decisions around the provision of office equipment. All WHS issues must be resolved in accordance with the agreed issue resolution procedures in your workplace.
I have workers who will be splitting their time between working from home and the usual workplace. Do I need to purchase additional equipment to maintain two working environments?
Whether you need to purchase additional equipment will depend on the circumstances. You and your workers must discuss what equipment may be required for the worker to safely carry out their work across both workstations and continue to monitor their ongoing equipment needs. You may determine that it is practicable to allow workers to borrow equipment from the office or reimburse reasonable costs where additional equipment is required.
If you are not satisfied that a safe workstation can be maintained both at home and in the usual workplace, it may not be reasonably practicable for the worker to continue working across both environments. In these circumstances, alternative arrangements may need to be made. This could include setting up a safe office space for the worker in the office or working from home exclusively.
Do my workers have the right to stop work if they feel unsafe returning to the usual workplace?
Whether working at the office or at home, a worker has the right to stop or refuse unsafe work when there is a reasonable concern of exposure to a serious risk to health and safety from an immediate or imminent hazard. In some circumstances, this could include exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
Any concerns about health or safety should first be raised with you or the HSR and resolved in accordance with the agreed issue resolution procedures in your workplace. A worker may also contact a union for advice. If a worker decides to stop work as it is unsafe, they must notify you as soon as possible and be available to carry out alternative work arrangements.
For information on the issue resolution process see the Code of Practice: Work, health and safety consultation, cooperation and coordination.
For information on a worker’s right to stop work, see our information on workers’ rights and the Fair Work Ombudsman Coronavirus and Australian Workplace Laws webpage.
One of my workers has contracted COVID-19. What should I do?
If you have a worker who has contracted COVID-19 you will need to follow the health advice provided by your public health authority.
Workers who have been isolated after having tested positive for COVID-19 can return to work when they have fully recovered and have met the criteria for clearance from isolation. The criteria may vary depending on the circumstances of the workplace and states and territories may manage clearance from isolation differently. Clearance may be by the public health authority or the person’s treating clinician.
It is possible that a worker with COVID-19 could potentially work from home, if for example, they have no or minor symptoms. This would be subject to the advice from the relevant treating clinician and discussions with the worker. For example, a doctor may recommend reasonable adjustments, including reduced working hours or changes to a worker’s workload.
Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications – Principles for COVID-19 public transport operations
Safe Work Australia guidance
- COVID-19 Industry information, including on physical distancing, hygiene, cleaning and PPE
- COVID-19 Information for Workplaces
- COVID-19 guidance on Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems)
- COVID-19 guidance on Incident notification
- COVID-19 Signage and posters
- COVID-19 - Workplace Checklists
- Infographic – What to do if a worker has COVID-19
- COVID-19 risk assessments – key considerations when assessing the risks associated with COVID-19 and example risk register
- Model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks
- Model Code of Practice: Work health and safety consultation, cooperation and coordination
Mental health resources
- Safe Work Australia - COVID-19 guidance on Mental health
- You can contact the Beyond Blue coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348 or the beyondblue website
- Department of Social Services - Family and mental health support
- Heads Up – Healthy workplaces support
- Smiling Mind – Supporting yourself and others through Coronavirus
- Safe Work Australia - Psychological health