Novel Coronavirus – an increasing concern for employers and the workplace

Author:Mr Anthony Drake
Profession:Wynn Williams Lawyers

We all expect employers to act in good faith and follow good human resources practices to avoid workplace issues or problems. But sometimes when issues such as a potential outbreak of a deadly virus occurs, what can employers do to protect their workers?

There is much more to learn about the Novel Coronavirus, but the World Health Organisation has already issued an advisory that includes some very basic protective measures:

Wash your hands frequently; Practice respiratory management (when coughing and sneezing, cover mouth and nose with flexed tissue - and discard the tissue immediately after use into a closed bin and clean your hands); Social distancing - adopting the metre rule (as a parent I like this one); and If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical help early. However, employers should be thinking beyond these basic measures for their organisation. While most workers are unlikely to be at significant risk of catching the virus, some industries may be more at risk (i.e. workers in tourism, travel, healthcare, boarder protection and some retail industries) where there could be an elevated risk of coming into contact with infected travellers from abroad. In these industries an employer should be considering measures for protecting workers from exposure (depending on the type of work being performed and exposure risk), including: providing clear information on safe hygiene practices, having steps to limit the spread of illness such as isolation of workers who feel unwell, and evaluating the risks to workers who are required to travel as part of their job. Where appropriate, an employer could consider offering personal protective equipment and respiratory protection to prevent exposure.

Employers could also consider introducing administrative controls such as varying an employee's contract of employment by changing shift patterns or splitting shifts so that employees don't have contact with other shifts to avoid the exposure risk. Ordinarily the risk of unilaterally changing an employment agreement would constitute a repudiatory breach of contract entitling an employee to claim a personal grievance. That principle is well established. However, in an old case (Hale 1990) the Court...

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