COVID19: What if there’s an outbreak in my office?

Although many states in Australia have proceeded to relax restrictions, this can cause increased anxiety for many organisations and their employees. By now, employees should be well versed in implementing measures to keep workers safe and stop the spread of COVID-19. However, it is vital to have reasonable HR policies and procedures in place in the (unlikely) event of an outbreak within the workspace. 

Do you have a plan?

At work, employees regularly come into close contact with co-workers, customers, clients and contractors. As an employer, you are not expected, and should not try to diagnose those people. However, it is your responsibility to contain the risks to health and safety in the course of your business operations and in accordance with health advice provided by the Australian government. If there is a suspect or confirmed case within the workplace, appropriate measures must be applied immediately.

This blog will be divided into two parts; how to manage a suspect case, and how to respond if there is a confirmed case or significant outbreak. 

A suspect case:

A suspect case is not someone who is sniffling and sneezing in the office. At the same time, a person who has symptoms such as a fever or cough will not necessarily be infected with COVID-19. However, HRD notes that these symptoms are a cause for HR to pay attention and the following steps are suggested: 

  1. Care, compassion and understanding should be demonstrated when approaching the employee in question.
  2. The employee should be asked to work from home and advised to visit the doctor (not the hospital).
  3. If the doctor has a reason to suspect a COVID-19 infection, the person will be referred for further tests and deemed a suspect case. 

If there is a suspect case confirmed by a doctor, employers should immediately identify all persons who have come into close physical contact with the individual. Close physical contact is someone who has been face to face with someone for 15 minutes or within the same closed space for two hours.

Employers should then advise all affected employees to:

  • Monitor their health, including temperature checks twice daily
  • Adopt good personal hygiene
  • See a doctor immediately if they are unwell
  • Inform supervisors and/or HR immediately, and stay at home on sick leave even if the symptoms are mild
  • Advise employees to stay home when possible and avoid large crowds

When updated on the outcome of a suspect case, HR are encouraged to notify employees of any updates. 

A confirmed case:

If there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, the advisable response can vary from state to state. Generally, there is not an automatic work and health safety requirement to shut down an entire workplace. It is advised that you refer to this guideline by Safe Work Australia and contact the appropriate helpline for advice from health and safety professionals. 

In the meantime, it is advised to do the following regardless if a case is suspect or confirmed:

  • Provide timely information to employees on latest developments
  • Reassure employees and relevant persons, e.g. customers, of the measures being taken to ensure their well-being at the workplace
  • Show care and concern to persons who are either confirmed or suspected of infection
  • Coordinate with suppliers or contractors to manage their own employees, if applicable

It is unlikely but not impossible that one or more of your workforce will contact COVID-19. HRD notes: “At all levels you will also need to do your best to manage the ‘people factor’. In its simplest form this will involve an empathetic approach to the management of people adversely affected by the crisis, whether medically, socially or economically.” For example, offering mental health support when people are experiencing anxiety or negativity. 

Want to learn more? Speak to one of our HR professionals here


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