Australia is closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness from the common cold to more severe illnesses, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A small number of cases of this strain of coronavirus have been confirmed in Australia to date. Australian work health and safety (WHS) laws require persons conducting a business or undertaking to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace, by providing and maintaining a work environment that does not pose risks to health and safety. Latest updates about coronavirus are provided by the Australian Department of Health website.
Businesses must identify hazards in the workplace and their associated risks and do what is reasonably practicable to reduce or eliminate those risks. Coronavirus is a hazard; employers can identify the risks it poses to workers by monitoring expert advice from the Chief Medical Officer or their local state or territory health department, and by talking to workers. Employers must determine the likelihood of the risk occurring, the degree of harm that might result and the availability/suitability of any control measures that could be implemented. Businesses that involve direct contact with sick or ill patients/customers should monitor the coronavirus situation as it develops and review their infection control policies, procedures and practices, to ensure that they are effective and being followed. Workers planning to travel overseas, particularly to China, should also monitor the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel advice on the Smartraveller website. Workers are also responsible for their own health and safety and must ensure that it does not adversely affect the health and safety of others, by practising hygiene.
Hygienic practices include washing their hands often, with soap and water, or carrying hand sanitiser and using it as needed. When sneezing or coughing, workers should cover their mouths, and seek advice from a healthcare professional if they start feeling unwell. Workers concerned they are at risk of contracting coronavirus should consult their manager immediately, to allow the business to consider whether additional control measures (such as requesting the employee seek medical clearance or work from home during the risk period) are necessary. Workers are entitled to personal leave if they are unfit for work due to contracting coronavirus.
The Australian Department of Health has released fact sheets, detailing the actions individuals should take to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The novel coronavirus information sheet for employers provides information about the virus and the steps to take if employees contract the virus.