Managing the risks of returning to the workplace



As restrictions start to ease and we’re all excited to step outside the 4 walls of our homes, sensible employers are starting to plan for a staged return to work for their workers. As with most other workplace decisions, we recommend a risk-based approach.


Reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission

In order to achieve a safe and healthy work environment, you might like to start by first thinking about what working environment delivers the optimum outcomes for your business. Reducing the likelihood of transmission is still a key consideration, so if tasks can be completed remotely, it’s well worth workers continuing to work from home, at least in a partial capacity. In fact, this may well become a feature of flexibility offered to your workforce in the long run to assist with achieving work-life balance.

If returning to the workplace is necessary or delivers a better outcome for your business, some ways to reduce the likelihood of transmission may include:

  • Establishing clear social distancing protocols for your business and clearly communicate expectations regarding social distancing while attending the workplace, includes lunchrooms, meeting rooms, during breaks etc. In-person meetings should be kept as brief as possible or can still be conducted via online platforms.

  • Ensuring adequate space is available in the workplace to allow social distancing. One way to do this may be separating the workforce into groups (by team or discipline) and advising them to attend the office on difference days or at different hours of the day.

  • Staggered break times to reduce the number of people in lunchrooms.

  • Staggered start and finish times, particularly if your workforce relies on public transport to access the workforce.

  • Ensuring adequate handwashing and sanitisation facilities and supplies.

  • Ensuring increased cleaning and sanitising procedures that include common touchpoints such as handles, switches, tools and shared vehicles, etc. You may need to discuss this with your facility manager if your workplace is shared with other businesses. Most shared workplaces are focusing on this too so now is a good time to start the conversation.

Other risks you may not have considered… but need to manage

Another consideration is the risks associated with restarting equipment that may have been dormant for several weeks. Essential services such as essential safety equipment, ventilation and temperature control facilities should have remained regularly serviced during the shut-down period – however checking this with your landlord is a good idea.

As with any task involving plant and equipment, pre-start checks and risk assessments should be conducted prior to returning them into service. Maintenance personnel are key in this and should be allowed the time and resourced to complete this work thoroughly.

One size does not fit all

Each business has its own unique needs, ways it services its clients and, therefore, has different exposures. It is important to consider and risk assess all possible scenarios. Activities with a high risk of transmission may need to be put on hold or have higher order controls to mitigate exposure. Engineering controls such as screens/segregation devices, use of stairs rather than lifts, ceasing the use of fitting rooms and increased ventilation are recommended. To ensure that workers are adhering to the protocols, determine your return to work plan sooner rather than later and communicate it to your workforce clearly and consistently, allowing people the time and opportunity to consider, ask questions and provide feedback.

SafeWork Australia – COVID-19 workplace information

SafeWork Australia has put together sector specific guides to help employers understand the different considerations and requirements.

If you need help assessing the risks associated with returning to the workplace, or putting in place a plan to manage them, don’t hesitate to get in touch– we’re here to help.