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COVID-19 and Returning to Work: Know Your Rights

As the country begins to ease lockdown restrictions, a lot of conversations are going on about what a return to work might look like. While a number of suggestions have made by workplace safety experts such as Cheif Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, who recommended staggering work hours to minimise crowing in public transport during rush hour, and Safework, which recommended employees be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) for face to face meetings that extend beyond two hours, these suggestions are not mandatory. So what are the legal, enforceable rights of workers when it comes to returning to the workplace? And what is legally required of employers to ensure their staff are safe? We thought we’d do the leg work and lay it all out for you. 

Your rights

  • You have the right to negotiate work from home options with your employer (Fairwork)
  • You have the right to request the facilitation of a Health and Safety Committee in your workplace (Safework)

This is a person who is elected by a workgroup to represent their health and safety interests in the workplace. The elected HSR must be a member of the workgroup they represent and there is no limit to the number of HSRs that can be elected. 

  • You have the right to refuse to carry out, or stop work if you think you are risking exposure to the COVID-19 Virus (Safework)

You have this right if there is a reasonable concern that you will be exposed to a serious risk to your health and safety from an immediate or imminent hazard. This could include exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Once you identify this risk, you must inform your Health and Safety Representative or your employer immediately. Your employer must then undertake a risk assessment and implement control measures to manage those risks. 

  • Employers cannot discriminate against or disadvantage you if you raise concerns about the health and safety of your workplace (Safework)
  • Employers cannot dismiss you if you are temporarily away from work due to sickness (such as the coronavirus) (Fairwork)

What Employers Must Provide

  • Employers must consult you about the measures they are taking to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 (Safework)

Agreement or consensus from workers is not mandatory.

  • Employers must assess risks associated with exposure to COVID-19 and implement control measures to manage those risks (Safework)
  • Employers must perform separate risk assessments for employees who are classified as vulnerable. (Safework) Employers can only request vulnerable workers to take leave if no appropriate risk management measures are found.
  • Employers must ensure that there are four square metres space per worker and that workers maintain a 1.5-metre distance from one another (Safework)

If the nature of the work doesn’t make this possible, employers must undertake alternative control measures such as minimising the number of people within an area at any time or staggering start, finish and break times 

  • Employers must ensure there are adequate facilities provided for workers to practice good hygiene. (Safework)

If you are concerned about returning to your workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic or have questions about your entitlements as a worker or your obligations as an employer, we recommend that you use Fair Work’s coronavirus hotline on 13 13 94 or through your online account.