Businesses must have strategies to protect returning staff from COVID-19, warns expert

It is essential that businesses put strategies in place to protect the health of their workers as they return to work after COVID-19, but it is also vital they are reassured their health is a top priority, a leading expert in the monitoring of vulnerable workers has warned.

Dr Rob McCartney, CEO of occupational health specialists Resile, who works with companies such as AngloAmerican, Powerlink, Yarra Trams, MPACT Community Services, Thiess, Downer and Caltex, says continued spikes in pandemic infection rates are “almost certain” and companies which fail to protect their workers in the longer term risk serious consequences.

Providing certainty for employees is a major step which organisations should be acting on now, as more employees return to their usual workplaces, Dr McCartney said.

“All indications are that we will see more cases of the disease and companies have to be ready for that,” he said.

“Most workers are happy to return to their workplace as the COVID-19 threat eases, but they need to have certainty about their long-term safety.

“Controlling the risk to a business and its workers is not just about science, it’s about emotions - how people perceive the risk of returning to work.

“It’s relatively easy to get people back to work when the government says there are no new cases of COVID-19 but what if there are significant numbers of new cases in a month?

“What will the OHS, Risk and the HR team do then?”

Dr McCartney said one of the most important foreseeable risks to be managed was vulnerable people in the workplace. If one of them workers contracted the virus, either at work or elsewhere, the consequences could be severe.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee advised that such risk must be assessed and mitigated, with consideration of the characteristics of the worker, the workplace and the work.

Resile’s expertise in protecting vulnerable workers has come to the fore during the COVID-19 crisis, with high demand for an online portal set up to enable worker’s risk level to be promptly and confidentially assessed. Then, where necessary, a risk management plan is developed with and on their behalf, in consultation with the employer.

Dr McCartney said the effective solution was not just managing this complex process but being seen to manage it sensitively by having suitable assessments and strategies, such as health assessments, in place.

Employers must also manage the heightened concerns of their workers when illness arose.

“You need to have a strategy that will manage the actual risks when they arise and show your workforce that you are managing the risks,” he said.

“By the time someone rings you to advise they have a cough and a sore throat, they will have already told several co-workers on social media or through the grapevine. Those co- workers will then come to you asking ‘what about me – what should I do?’.

“Do you send everyone home or strategically manage the risk.

“We are getting lots of calls on our 24/7/365 telemedicine hotline where people are worried about their risk from quite complex situations such as ‘one of my wife’s co-workers has a mum who is in the nursing home where there is an outbreak. My wife is now at home because of the risk, should I be at home too’.

“There are genuinely worried people looking to you for advice and reassurances. You need to have answers or know where to direct them to get reassuring specialist advice.

“The risk of poor or inadequate management of such situations can be considerable and escalate rapidly”.

Dr Rob McCartney recently ran a webinar with RCSA and for more resources click here

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