Staying safe when returning to work

Remote working was increasing at a great rate well before COVID-19 (“BC”). Indeed, BC it was estimated that in the next few years, up to 50 per cent of the workforces in the Technology and Information sectors would be working remotely full – or at least part-time. And most of this work would be done from home.

But during the COVID pandemic (“DC”), working from home has morphed into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, working from home is no longer a privilege, it’s a necessity.

Now that many people have experienced working from home during the pandemic lockdown, many might not want to return to the office every day once restrictions are lifted.

They might have found some work tasks are actually easier to do at home. Or they (and their employers) might have discovered things that weren’t thought possible to do from home are possible.

According to an NBN study, 67 per cent of workers are likely to continue working from home.

Although working from home has been a “seamless” arrangement for many, it seems most are looking forward to returning to the office, resuming face-to-face collaboration and meetings, and getting back into the hustle and bustle.

But coming out of lockdown may be harder than going in.

With many office-based workers resuming working from their employer’s central location in coming weeks, now is the time to be planning how this can be done safely and reducing the likelihood of a surge in new Covid-19 cases.

Commuting: how do you maintain social distancing and hygiene if commuting via public transport? And how to allow time for delays and long queues at bus stops and train stations because of severe passenger limits. Or if you are driving yourself to work, where are you going to park the car? If you ride a bike, will there be shower amenities and if so, are they to be properly cleaned?

How many colleagues will be in the workplace at one time: current space for employees tends to be 10-12sq m per employee. But social distancing might mean going back up to 15-16sq m per person. In lifts, SafeWork Australia’s revised regulations demand that people “still ensure, as far as they reasonably can, that they maintain safe physical distance in lifts and lift waiting areas”. And for the foreseeable future, this may spell the end of “hot-desking”, a proven source of many viral and bacterial contaminations. And who is cleaning the lift buttons, etc? Unions are calling for staggered start times, split teams and “aggressive” sanitation efforts.

Maintaining mental and psychological health and well-being: Much of the public health advice includes recommendations for social distancing and social isolation. As we have noted, there are hazards and risks associated with social isolation. A Mercer earlier this year found that only 16 per cent of employers indicated they were “addressing psychological stress” in the context of COVID-19.

And when all this ends – make sure we can help effectively managing the transition back to “business as usual”.

When returning to workplaces and projects in these sorts of circumstances, there can be pressure (real or perceived) to try to “make up the difference”, by working longer, faster or cutting corners in an effort to “get back on track”.

These are the very sorts of scenarios that are the pre-conditions of health and safety incidents in the workplace. We need to be proactive and mindful in watching out for these kinds of behaviours and conditions and specifically send the message that health and safety requirements must not make way for “getting the work done” and “catching up”.

Returning to the office after the coronavirus lockdown might be a welcome step back to normality for many workers, but those who worry about the potential health risks are within their rights to keep working from home, employment lawyers say.

Dr David McIvor, Director, WorkSafety Pty Ltd and author of “Working From Home Safety Handbook”

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