The Practical Impact of Swine Flu on the Workplace

The media has been awash with reports of the spread of H1N1 Influenza, or Swine Flu. To date, there has been a focus on containing the spread of Swine Flu through voluntary quarantine. Such measures can, however, have a significant impact on the workplace.

Employer Obligations to Protect Employees from Exposure to Swine Flu

Employers have occupational health and safety obligations to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the health of an employee, contractor or visitor in the workplace is not put at risk. It is therefore appropriate that businesses take reasonable steps to protect employees, contractors and visitors from potential exposure.

Employer OHS obligations of risk assessment and risk control will apply to an identified hazard of Swine Flu infection. In undertaking a risk assessment of Swine Flu exposure in your workplace consider:

  • Employee exposure to identified high risk areas such as schools, hospitals, planes and cruise ships;
  • Whether employees are working in close proximity or with shared resources or facilities;
  • Whether employees have high contact with the general public in the course of their employment.

In controlling any identified risks consider:

  • Minimising the movement of employees in and around high risk areas;
  • Directing employees with flu symptoms to go home, and requiring employees who have developed flu symptoms not to attend the workplace;
  • Minimise employee travel, particularly air travel;
  • Introducing or reinforcing cleaning and hygiene practices; and
  • Ensuring that employees returning to work following a period of voluntary quarantine or showing flu symptoms have been cleared by their doctor as being able to safely return to work.

Employee Entitlements

While there are no specific provisions in the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (or the impending Fair Work Act 2009) dealing with an employee’s absence from work due to the need to enter into voluntary quarantine, the fact the employee’s absence is due to a possible exposure to illness creates a strong argument in favour of the employee having an entitlement to be paid personal leave entitlements for the period.

In order to be entitled to be paid personal leave during the period of their absence, an employee is obligated to provide reasonable notice of the period for which the employee expects to be absent from work. The employee may also be required to provide their employer with a statutory declaration setting out that the employee is unfit for work because of potential exposure to Swine Flu.

An employee who does not have sufficient accrued personal leave to cover the period of their absence may apply to instead be paid from accrued annual leave entitlements.

Maintaining a Productive Workplace

Where practicable, consideration should be given to the ability of employees to utilise flexible working arrangements, in particular working from home, while absent from the workplace during a period of voluntary quarantine.

When making provision for an employee to perform work from home, attention should be given to:

  • Conducting hazard identification and risk assessment to ensure that the employee has a safe work area – employers retain their obligation to ensure employees are working safely at home and any employee injured while working from home will remain able to submit a WorkCover claim with respect to any injuries they sustain in this environment;
  • Ensuring that employees have access to all materials and facilities required to effectively complete their work;
  • Maintaining regular (at least daily) contact to ensure that employees have sufficient work and access to all necessary facilities, that they remain appraised of relevant news in the workplace and to generally check how they are going.

Conclusion

Employers have an important responsibility at this time to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to prevent or contain the spread of Swine Flu within their workplace. By taking proactive measures to protect employees from exposure, or to support employees who have been exposed to Swine Flu, the impact of Swine Flu on the workplace may be minimised.

Author: Katrina Sweatma