Posted: 05 May 2020 5 min. read

Are we ready to go back into the office?

Starting your organisation’s COVID-19 recovery Safety Plan

As a nation, and at the time of writing this blog, we have been in isolation for roughly seven weeks, and we’ve done remarkably well to “crush the curve”.

We are on the precipice of isolation controls being released, in a controlled, reverse engineered way to their introduction. But this doesn’t come without risk.  We all acknowledge the economic and mental health risk of not returning to the new normal soon, but by doing so, it will expose more of us to COVID-19 infection and an increased risk of illness and death for some.

It goes without saying, our return, and the road to the recovery, must be done in a planned and controlled manner in order to minimise health and safety risk.

It is worth noting that our managed return to work will cause a shift in influence and control of this risk, from one which has been a community and government controlled risk, to one in which employers will have much more influence and control – in the way we manage and maintain our business, operations and the health and safety controls at our workplaces.  

I observed the general public behavior this first May weekend, and I couldn’t help but think many people appear to be tired and losing patience with our isolated work and living conditions. I noticed people being less vigilant keeping their physical distance outdoors, particularly along our busy coastline and at take away cafes.

I also read a sobering historical reminder this weekend, that in 1918, Philadelphia prematurely ended its quarantine from the Spanish Flu to “throw a parade in order to boost morale for the war effort”. Approximately 200,000 people lined the streets that late September. Within 72 hours, every bed of Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled and the city suffered a further 4,500 deaths from the flu, or its complications, within a matter of days.   

And we all know the famous quote, “…those who cannot learn from history, are doomed to repeat it…”

Matters which employers and its leaders should think about when considering planning for the return to work of our people, particularly in the office environment, should include:

  • One of the greatest risks is travelling to work by public transport. To minimise the risk of infection, we need to minimize numbers on public transport and maintain physical distancing. Some countries are requiring face masks to be worn by all persons on public transport to further minimise the risk.
  • How will you restrict the number of people in lifts in a multi-storey building? And how does one do that when a building is multi-tenanted, requiring the consultation and coordination of facilities management and other employer tenants? Some of our clients already have a safety control of no more than two persons in a lift at any one time.
  • The above two controls raise questions of staggered days and start times, to ensure our transport, the office and lifts are not full of workers, which would make the physical distancing control impossible to maintain. Will you have a planned system of staggered start times and selected staff alternating between working from home and the office?
  • For those members of staff coming into work, will employers request they download the COVIDsafe app for their return to the office and in order to manage and streamline the tracing process if there were to be an outbreak at work? Arguably, for the purposes of the work health and safety legislation, an employer (as a person conducting the business or undertaking) has the discretion (subject to consultation with its workers) to require such a safety control.

Each state and territory in Australia are at a different point on the recovery journey. One of the first “out of the blocks” is Northern Territory, which will likely be closely followed by South Australia and Western Australia. By 5 June 2020, the Northern Territory government is requiring all businesses to prepare a ‘COVID-19 Safety Plan’ for the recovery period. We expect all states and territories will require the same from all businesses. The NT government’s ‘roadmap to the new normal – 3 stage approach’ to recovery includes dates and the unwinding of COVID-19 controls. It provides the staged removal of controls, but it does not prescribe what should be in your plan, only that organisations are required to develop the plan.

Planning for the recovery period now upon us will be critical. When tailoring your Safety Plan, taking the nuances of your workplace, its operations, risk profile, number of staff and place(s)/locations of work into account will be a must.  

Our safe recovery won’t just happen. It needs to be carefully planned, executed, measured and monitored. Have you started your organisation’s COVID-19 recovery Safety Plan? 

More about the author

Samantha Jones

Samantha Jones

Partner, Risk Advisory

Samantha has over 18 years’ experience as a specialist in health, safety and environment working with national and multinational clients providing solutions and advice on best practice strategy and culture to improve performance and maximise opportunities to manage non-financial risk. She has worked across most industry sectors including Australian federal and state government departments as well as projects in Africa, PNG, Indonesia, New Zealand, Europe, UAE and SE Asia.