Does your business have a plan for protecting employees against the coronavirus pandemic? As increasing numbers of cases are being reported it’s important to have a response in place. Here are some guidelines for containment and keeping your business’s staff safe.
Originating from a meat market in Wuhan, China, novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, starts with ordinary flu symptoms that can progress to a pneumonia-like condition and has already resulted in recorded deaths. Since the beginning of the year the virus has spread to other parts of China, and the world including South-east Asian countries (Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan), the United States and Australia, who are also recording a mounting number of confirmed cases.
Due to our trade relationships with China, and the popularity of Australia as a destination for Chinese tourists, Australian businesses are particularly at risk.
What you can do to protect your business and people
In a pandemic scenario these employees could be at risk:
- Employees travelling to a foreign destination
- Those arriving from a foreign destination
- Domestic employees at a foreign location
- Employees who may unknowingly have been exposed to infection.
If you have employees travelling to China
- Are you enforcing a travel ban to China or affected areas?
- Are you issuing travel advice and tracking individuals?
- If travel is essential, are you providing employees with masks and advising them on ways to protect themselves?
If you have employees returning from China
- Are you tracking returnees?
- Do you have a notification process for those displaying symptoms?
For domestic employees in China
- Are you facilitating the provision of approved masks for employees and advising them on ways to protect themselves?
- Are you implementing a travel ban to and from known affected areas including mainland China and particularly the Hubei Province?
- Are you promoting a work-from-home strategy and virtual meetings to minimise the risk of exposure?
What does this mean for your travel insurance cover?
The coronavirus outbreak has received substantial media attention, alerts have been issued by both the World Health Organisation and DFAT / Smartraveller and many insurers in Australia are now treating this event as known and foreseen. This means, depending on when travel arrangements were made and the destination, that travel insurance policies may not cover employees impacted by the coronavirus.
Travellers should check their policy wording for eligibility, cover entitlement and the type of expenses that can be claimed, as these can vary policy to policy. If concerned, employers holding corporate travel insurance are advised to contact their insurance broker.
Corporate Wellbeing Specialist Dr Debra Villar (Chiropractor), from Gallagher’s Benefits & HR division in Australia, strongly concurs with Department of Health advice that anyone experiencing fever, cough or sore throat should see their doctor immediately. Avoid people exhibiting these symptoms, as well as large groups. On an individual level, people should:
- Avoid areas with large groups of people
- Suspend travel to the affected areas
- Practice good hygiene such as washing your hands for at least 20 seconds
- Avoid contact with anyone with the flu
- Cough and sneeze into your elbow
- Stay healthy in general by eating well, exercising and decreasing your stress levels so your immune system function is at its maximum potential.
The current health advice from Australian government departments are that the risk of infection is low and the immediate response by employers should be proportionate. At a corporate level, employers can be proactive by undertaking contingency planning to protect their business. Actions could include
- Considering flexible working arrangements to enable employees to work from home to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace or in the community. Ensure that working from home policies are up to date.
- Updating policies on fitness for work, leave and possible quarantining of employees. This could include formalising processes for requiring employees to remain off work if they have been affected by the virus or have travelled to virus-affected areas.
- Updating travel rules and arrangements for travel to coronavirus-affected areas, and limiting non-essential business travel
- Reviewing arrangements for workplace hygiene and cleaning protocols. Communicating good hygiene protocols with employees including “cough and sneeze etiquette”.
- Ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of employees who may be concerned about coronavirus. This could include promoting access to employee assistance programs. Actions could also include clear communications that provide reassurance that any risk to their welfare and the business is being managed and the employer is ready to respond.
Stay alert for updates
Remaining alert for updates and advice from authorities is essential to defining your strategy and determining when to introduce additional measures.
Authorities and public health organisations are taking steps to manage the spread of the disease, and the Department of Health has posted information on its website for people returning from China or who may have had contact with an infected person, as well as for medical professionals.
Public health departments in all states in Australia have the ability, facilities and clearly established protocols for placing people in quarantine to prevent communicable disease from spreading. Coronavirus is transmitted through droplets of saliva from a person who is sick with the illness coughing or sneezing or from their contaminated hands.
Also check your insurance cover to see if it can be applied to evacuation of staff or suspension of business activities, either voluntarily or under the direction of health authorities.
How we can help
If you have any concerns or would like support in determining your organisation has the right processes in place to support the physical and emotional wellbeing of your employees and your business, our Work Health & Safety practice can provide tools and advice.