Coronavirus (Covid-19) – What Employers Need to Know

We were recently asked by a small business what they should do to help prepare for staffing impacts on their business for a potential Coronavirus Pandemic in Australia.

Our goal is to provide you with a reputable and straightforward source of information to help you when briefing your staff, and to help you to plan your response.

We are not doctors or infectious disease specialists, so in preparing this advice, we have researched widely and have included links to government and scientific peer-reviewed information where relevant.

What is Corona Virus?

Coronaviruses are part of a large family of viruses that causes illnesses ranging in severity from the common cold through to more severe diseases including SARS (SARS-CoV as it was officially known).

Coronaviruses are what are called zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted between animals and people.

Covid-19 is a new strain of Coronavirus that had not previously been seen in humans before the outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019. That’s why you may also hear it called novel-coronavirus in the media or some publications.

Common Symptoms of Coronavirus

Symptoms of Coronavirus may appear in as little as two days after contact or as long as 14 days after exposure, but scientists are still assessing these periods.

The most common symptoms of Coronavirus are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. Some patients also have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea.

These symptoms for the majority of patients are very mild and begin gradually.

The early stages of the disease are often unusually mild, which is why it is possible to catch Coronavirus from someone who has a slight cough and who doesn’t otherwise feel unwell.

Some people have the disease but don’t show any symptoms and don’t feel unwell.

Currently, over 80% of people who develop mild symptoms fully recover within 2 weeks without needing any special treatment.

However, approximately 1 in 6 people go on to develop severe respiratory issues, including pneumonia and can have difficulty breathing.

If you develop a fever or have trouble breathing, then you need to seek immediate medical attention. The advice is to ring the GP or emergency room before arriving and mention your symptoms and any potential coronavirus contact. They will advise how to minimise the risk of transmission to other patients and staff when you arrive.

Severe cases of Coronavirus can take 3-6 weeks to recover from.

Currently, approximately 1-2% of people who develop Coronavirus have died. To put that into perspective, this is a similar rate to people who die from complications from the flu each year.

People most at risk of developing stronger symptoms include older people and people with underlying medical issues including diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and heart issues.

How is Coronavirus Spread?

While the experts are still determining all of the ways that Coronavirus spreads, the most likely means it is transmitted is from small droplets from the nose and mouth from an infected person.

These droplets land on people and surfaces around the person and other people come in contact with these droplets and then touching their nose or face.

Most common ways that this occurs include:

  • Direct close contact with someone while they are infectious.
  • Close contact with someone infectious when they cough, sneeze or exhale.
  • Touching surfaces (e.g. door handles, phones, tables, shopping trolley handles) contaminated by an infected person who coughs or sneezes, and then touching your mouth, eyes or face.

It currently appears that Coronavirus is highly contagious from people in close contact, but there is still a lot to be learned about the contagion level and how it is transmitted.

What is my duty of care to my employees?

Coronavirus is the same as any workplace health and safety issue.

You have a duty of care to your employees, clients and suppliers to ensure that you provide a safe system of work and do not knowingly put people in harm’s way.

What should employers do?

Plan don’t panic!

Most government agencies are suggesting that Coronavirus will negatively impact on workplaces and schools this year.

Businesses have a window of opportunity now to plan and prepare even if the event turns out to be mild. (Think of it like planning for a potential hurricane at the beginning of storm season).

Plan for the worst-case scenario, where significant numbers of your staff (worst case scenarios estimate in the range from 30-50% staff) may be absent due to school/day-care closures, or for being ill or caring for someone with Coronavirus.

It is extremely unlikely to be that severe, but if you plan for all eventualities, then your business will continue to operate no matter what happens.

You should start to prepare a plan to consider their response to the emerging threat including:
  • How to reduce the risk of work-related exposure to your employees;
  • How to minimise transmission amongst employees;
  • How to protect employees, clients or suppliers who are at a higher risk for health complications from the outbreak;
  • How to maintain your business operations;
  • How to minimise adverse effects on other businesses that you supply goods or services to or do business with.
What should I tell my staff?

Employers need to brief all employees on relevant, factual information, and act to help dispel rumours and fear.

You need to remind staff of your sick leave policy, and that you want people to stay home when they are ill so as not to pass on illnesses to other workers.

You also need to remind staff of your anti-discrimination, racial vilification, anti-bullying and harassment and privacy policies. That means your employees can’t make policy or service decisions based on race, or bully or harass staff or clients who they suspect of having the Coronavirus.

All medical information of individuals needs to remain confidential, within the boundaries of the privacy regulations.

One big thing to remember as head into cold and flu season, people still will get the common cold as well as Coronavirus, so respond appropriately.

How can we help reduce the risk of Coronavirus in the workplace?

These guidelines are for general small businesses, and not health care or medical companies, who have a higher risk of contact and therefore a higher duty of care and response for their staff.

In general:

  • Work hard to dispel fear and panic through regular fact-based communication.
  • Ensure your office is regularly and thoroughly cleaned, with particular attention to surfaces people touch such as counters, door handles, bathroom fixtures, phones etc.
  • Remind staff of the importance of regular and effective hand-washing.
  • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitiser throughout the office and encourage regular use.
  • Provide tissues for staff to help if they cough or sneeze.
  • Provide soap in the bathrooms and kitchen areas for people to wash their hands.
  • Provide disposable wipes and gloves for staff to regularly clean their workspaces.
  • Remind staff of the importance of covering sneezes and coughs in the workplace.
  • Reinforce that you require people who are ill not to come to work.
  • Send home employees who develop symptoms at work.
  • Reconsider unessential travel and conference attendance based on advice from Smart traveller.
  • Consider separating people to at least 2m apart, so they are out of the sneeze/cough zone and encourage working from home.
  • Provide additional emotional counselling and support to employees who may be struggling.
  • Reduce handshakes and hugs.
  • Cross-train staff to cover essential roles.
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Luke Hemmings

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