Plan and Respond to the Coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19)
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans, first diagnosed in a group of workers from the seafood and meat marketplace in Wuhan providence, in China.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans. The source of the COVID-19 is as yet unknown.
Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing (World Health Organisation, 2020).
Recommended preventative health strategies for employers to use now:
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home:
- Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (being 37.8° C or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever (being chills, profuse sweating, feeling hot/cold, joint aches and muscle aches), and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing (i.e., Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Paracetamol) or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
- Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
- Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of their sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
- Request a healthcare provider’s medical certificate for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate they are medically cleared to return to work.
- Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
- Separate sick employees:
- Australia’s Commonwealth Department of Health recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. fever, cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.
- Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees:
Image courtesy of Australia’s Department of Health
- Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
- Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 90-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.
- Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning:
- Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.
- No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.
- Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
- Advise employees before traveling to take certain steps:
- Check the Australian Government Smart Traveller website for Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which you will travel. Specific travel information for traveller’s going to and returning from China, and information for aircrew, can be found at on the Smartraveller website.
- Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms of acute respiratory illness before starting travel and notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
- Ensure employees who become sick while traveling or on temporary assignment, understand that they should notify their supervisor and should promptly call a healthcare provider/doctor for advice if needed.
- If outside Australia, sick employees should follow your company’s policy for obtaining medical care or contact a healthcare provider or overseas medical assistance company to assist them with finding an appropriate healthcare provider in that country. An Australian consular officer can help locate healthcare services. However, Australian embassies, consulates, and military facilities do not have the legal authority, capability, and resources to evacuate or give medicines, vaccines, or medical care to private Australian citizens overseas.
- Additional Measures in Response to Currently Occurring Sporadic Importations of the COVID-19:
- Employees who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to SafeWork Australia guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
- If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Australian Privacy Act 1988. Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to SafeWork Australia guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
- Important Considerations for Creating an Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Plan
All employers should be ready to implement strategies to protect their workforce from COVID-19 while ensuring continuity of operations. During a COVID-19 outbreak, all sick employees should stay home and away from the workplace, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene should be encouraged, and routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces should be performed regularly.
- Ensure the plan is flexible and involve your employees in developing and reviewing your plan.
- Conduct a focused discussion or exercise using your plan, to find out ahead of time whether the plan has gaps or problems that need to be corrected.
- Share your plan with employees and explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available to them.
- Share best practices with other businesses in your communities (especially those in your supply chain), chambers of commerce, and associations to improve community response efforts.
Recommendations for an Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Plan:
- Identify possible work-related exposure and health risks to your employees. SafeWork Australia has more information on how to protect workers from potential exposures to COVID-19.
- Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and are consistent with existing state and federal workplace laws.
- Explore whether you can establish policies and practices, such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees and others if state and local health authorities recommend the use of social distancing strategies. For employees who are able to telework, supervisors should encourage employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace until symptoms are completely resolved. Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.
- Identify essential business functions, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within your supply chains (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) required to maintain business operations. Plan for how your business will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or these supply chains are interrupted.
- Set up authorities, triggers, and procedures for activating and terminating the company’s infectious disease outbreak response plan, altering business operations (e.g., possibly changing or closing operations in affected areas), and transferring business knowledge to key employees. Work closely with your local health officials to identify these triggers.
- Plan to minimize exposure between employees and also between employees and the public, if public health officials call for social distancing.
- Establish a process to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plans and latest COVID-19 information. Anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumours, and misinformation, and plan communications accordingly.
- In some communities, early childhood programs and K-12 schools may be dismissed, particularly if COVID-19 worsens. Determine how you will operate if absenteeism spikes from increases in sick employees, those who stay home to care for sick family members, and those who must stay home to watch their children if dismissed from school. Businesses and other employers should prepare to institute flexible workplace and leave policies for these employees.
- Local conditions will influence the decisions that public health officials make regarding community-level strategies; employers should take the time now to learn about plans in place in each community where they have a business.
- If there is evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, consider cancelling non-essential business travel to additional countries per travel guidance on the Government’s Smartraveller
- Travel restrictions may be enacted by other countries which may limit the ability of employees to return home if they become sick while on travel status.
- Consider cancelling large work-related meetings or events.
For more information:
- Additional information on 2019-nCoV can be found on the World Health Organization website, the Australian Government Department of Health or from your state and territory health department.
- For guidance specific to your industry and workplace, including whether and how the WHS laws of a jurisdiction may apply overseas, contact your WHS regulator.
- For overseas travel advice, see the Smartraveller website.
The information provided in this document is only intended to be a summary of information available to the public. It is not intended to take the place of either the written law or regulations in Australia.
Department of Health, 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19) – what you need to know. [Online]
Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-what-you-need-to-know
[Accessed 26 Feb 2020].
Smarttraveller.gov.au, 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19). [Online]
Available at: https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/news-and-updates/coronavirus-covid-19
[Accessed 26 Feb 2020].
US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), February 2020. [Online]
Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fguidance-business-response.html&fbclid=IwAR1DTWHKrvNYQwiNKu85_TIq8GtT4wJzc-Aat13ljLvjEgNRUnRwYYGP
[Accessed 26 Feb 2020].
World Health Organisation, 2020. Coronavirus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus
[Accessed 26 Feb 2020].