Coronavirus and Health and Safety in the Workplace
General / 14 February 2020
The outbreak of Coronavirus was recently declared ‘a public health emergency of international concern’ by the World Health Organisation. While we haven’t had a confirmed Coronavirus case in New Zealand to date, employers have obligations to manage the health and safety risks of the virus in the workplace.
Per the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (Act) Coronavirus and any other infectious disease in the workplace is considered a workplace hazard, and employers have to take reasonably practicable steps to manage the resulting risks. Workers have the right to refuse to carry out work if they believe that they would be exposed to a serious risk to health or safety from an immediate or imminent exposure to a hazard.
Employer’s obligations and options around Coronavirus
Employers should consider excluding employees who may have come into contact with Coronavirus (for example, by the employee’s travel to an affected country) and employees should be directed to stay away from work during the possible 14 day incubation period, including by:
– Working from home;
– Working hours to avoid contact with others;
– Other measures for the employee to avoid personal contact with others;
– Agreeing that the employee take leave; or
– Paid suspension.
Employers can only identify workers at risk of Coronavirus where they have a reliable source of information that there has been possible contact with it. If an employer is driven by misinformation or seeks to remove workers of certain ethnicities from the workplace, this will likely be discrimination.
Employers should also consider other virus management measures like providing information issued by health authorities, promoting handwashing/use of hand sanitiser and providing facilities for this, encouraging employees to stay home if they are unwell, and ensuring surfaces that people touch are regularly cleaned thoroughly often.
Finally, health and safety management plans, employment agreements and policies may provide guidance on an employer’s options for action and should be followed.
Message for Employers
Employers must balance protection of employees in the workplace with duties to any employees it requires to stay away from the workplace.
Please contact us if you are concerned about how to manage the risk of Coronavirus or would like to discuss emergency management otherwise. Employers should consider developing policies that address emergencies such as virus outbreaks, and which allow their business to continue operating.
Disclaimer: We remind you that while this article provides commentary on employment law and health and safety topics, it should not be used as a substitute for legal or professional advice for specific situations. Please seek legal advice from your lawyer for any questions specific to your workplace.