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Comcare webinar - COVID-19: Navigating a new normal video transcript

Video transcript of Comcare webinar COVID-19: Navigating a new normal presented on 30 July 2020.

Watch the video of the Comcare webinar.


Master of Ceremonies (MC):

To officially start the webinar, we're really pleased to invite Sue Weston, Comcare's CEO to open today's session [Thursday 30 July 2020].

Sue Weston:

Welcome everyone wherever you are today. It's a pleasure to open Comcare's first webinar, Navigating a New Normal. First, I'd like to respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are meeting across the country today. I pay respect to their elders, past, present and emerging and acknowledge the contribution they have made and continue to make across the country. I extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are joining us today.

I also acknowledge the cultures of everyone in the Comcare community and the richness of understanding a perspective that diversity brings to the work we do to promote and enable safe and healthy work. The past few months have seen some radical changes in how we live and work as the pandemic has unfolded. For some states and territories, COVID-19 has followed closely on the back of the Summer bushfire disasters. I think we can agree that 2020 has seen unprecedented disruption and as we continue, it looks like we'll be transitioning back and forth towards what is becoming known as the new normal.

We've all had to adapt and shift in the way we work, from home or working in another setting, or with an increase or decrease in our workload. One thing we have seen is that, as a nation, we've needed to work collaboratively. Given the current limitations on face to face events, this webinar has been developed as an opportunity for us to engage on working with the pandemic. Some key messages from me: You can't set and forget your guidance to staff and your risk assessments. I can see there's questions already about risk assessments. You need to remain engaged with the evolving situation. You also need to remain engaged with your staff and consult and be aware that the risks may be different in different parts or locations of your organisation.

And in the Comcare jurisdiction, employers should notify Comcare of all confirmed COVID-19 cases that are work-related and arise from the business or undertaking of the employer. And Comcare will be checking across our jurisdiction to seek insurances but there are safe systems of work in place. If you are not in the Commonwealth jurisdiction, please check the Safe Work Australia COVID Hub for notification requirements with your state or territory workplace health and safety regulator. In this webinar, you'll get a sense of Comcare's priorities during COVID-19, from our approach to regulation to our focus on providing practical and timely information to support our diverse jurisdiction.

Promoting and enabling safe and healthy work is central to Comcare's work in workplace health and safety compliance, claims management, early intervention, return to work, our research program and in supporting mentally healthy workplaces. Collaboration is crucial in supporting public sector and private sector employers and workers in our scheme. I'm very pleased to be part of Comcare's first webinar today and I hope you all can take something from it. .

MC:

Thanks for the welcome and getting us started. In a moment, I'll introduce our presenters for today, Natalie and Justin. But before that, I'll give you a little bit of background about this webinar. Normally, at this time of year, we would have delivered a series of face to face work health safety forum activities as a way to engaging with you as some of our key stakeholders. We have of course put these on hold as a result of the COVID-19 situation and are now using this webinar as a digital platform to engage with you.

The topics and the content for this webinar have been developed from the questions and the queries that we've received from many of you when you registered for the webinar. Some of the questions have also been asked from our call centre-our work health and safety helpdesk -as well as some of our direct interactions in our stakeholder outreach. Interestingly, I'm just looking back at the poll, our thumb poll that we had. We've got so far 183, 185 now, people have said that they're viewing from home, participating from home, and 68 from the office. So, we've got at least two to one, doing this from home versus the office which is interesting. And only one from somewhere else.

We've got over 300 attendees... Over 400 participants joining us live at the moment. We've had registrations from the Australian Public Service, from many of our licensee organisations, from workplace rehabilitation providers. We've got representatives from other state and territory regulators. We've got a number of unions represented and many others from outside our direct jurisdiction. And we're really pleased to have you joining us today. However, it is really important to note that the information that's provided is aimed for participants within the Comcare scheme and work health safety jurisdiction. So, as Sue mentioned, if you're outside of the Comcare scheme jurisdiction, you will need to follow your state or territory's work health safety legislation and guidance in the first instance.

All of the discussions and comments that we make through today's webinar should be considered as general information and advice only. And you need to consider how anything applies, or is said, applies in the context of your individual and your workplace's specific and unique circumstances. Now that said, if you are within the Comcare scheme and you do have a specific work health safety question about your organisation's circumstances and you want some advice from Comcare, you can email our work health safety helpdesk. The details are on the side in the slide. They'll provide you with a considered response and direct you to appropriate information and guidance.

So now, let's start by introducing our presenters for today who are going to be answering your questions that you've put forward. First, I'll introduce Justin Napier who is the General Manager of Comcare's Regulatory Operations Group. This is the group that's focused on encouraging healthier and safer workplaces through risk-based regulation. His role, Justin has got oversight of Comcare's inspectorate functions, regulatory policy and work health safety audits and authorisations. So welcome, Justin. And by way of introduction, I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself. What's drawn you to be in the role that you're in, and how has the COVID-19 pandemic actually affected you and the work that you're doing?

Justin Napier:

Welcome everyone. I'm working from home in Melbourne at the moment and have been since March and by the looks of it, may be for some time yet. So, that's a pretty significant change in my day to day routine. I've been in regulatory roles in the Commonwealth Government for more than 10 years. So, it's obviously an area that I have an interest in and a commitment to. I see work health safety as a fundamental right. No one should go to work and have their health or safety compromised.

And our role as the work health safety regulator is important in that context. I'd like to think that the work performed each day by Comcare's inspectors, by our helpdesk staff, our policy team, our education and engagement people and our risk and analysis team helps to make the workplaces we regulate healthier and safer. So, our work in conjunction with the work that you do as HR professionals, safety people, HSRs [health and safety representatives], CEOs or unions, is making a real difference. So, for me, it's a nice feeling going to work with this is our goal. In terms of the impact of COVID, it's certainly been a very busy time. We've been working with our jurisdiction to provide advice and guidance to help manage the never seen before risks of COVID. We've been working with Safe Work Australia on national guidance and we've been following up on notifications and WHS concerns, both proactively and reactively, to ensure the COVID risk is being managed effectively.

While this has been an unprecedented and challenging time for all of us, there have been many silver linings. And one of those, for me, is a real spirit across all work, health and safety agencies, both federal and state, to work together in response to this crisis. And I think this has been a good thing. So, I leave it there and welcome again everyone.

MC:

We've also got Natalie Bekis here with us today. Natalie is the General Manager of Comcare's Strategic Partnerships and Engagement Group. This is the group that contributes to enabling healthy and safe work through strategic programs, partnerships, research, engagement, communications, and education. Welcome, Natalie, I'm wondering if you can also tell us a bit about yourself, what's drawn you to being in the role that you're in and how has COVID-19 affected you in your work?

Natalie Bekis:

Welcome everybody, great to be here. So, I'm Natalie and I've got 20 years’ experience working in the personal injury sector. And so, I also have a background and I started my career as an emergency nurse. So fair to say, I have a bit of a Humanities brain and I'm really passionate about the health and wellbeing of people and belief that good work helps us to thrive. Good work supports not only our physical health but our mental health and it can have a really positive impact upon our families. My group here at Comcare leads the research and innovation arm here at Comcare where we look to apply and test better practice working in partnerships with organisations in the industry. And we look to trial and test new ways around prevention, early intervention, mental health and the like.

On a personal note, I too am working in Victoria, and have been working at home for quite some time now. I am a mother to two young small boys, so home schooling is also my life, which is a real challenge, as many of you no doubt already are experiencing. And the work level we've seen absolutely an increasing intensity to our work as we've had to develop and respond really quickly with the new guidance, education and support. As well as partnering and collaborating with Beyond Blue and others that we look to develop new ways of responding to what is ever an increasing need during the pandemic.

MC:

Let's begin to talk about some of the questions that have come in from participants, and the first one's for you Justin. We've had quite a few queries about the national COVID safe workplace principles, and I'm wondering if you can provide us with some context around where they've come from, and what do they mean?

Justin Napier:

Certainly. recognising that COVID-19 is a public health emergency, the national COVID work safe principles were agreed by the nation cabinet process. The principles are designed to prepare workplaces to resume normal operations, and these principles apply to all businesses, PCBUs and workers. Included in these principles, is that businesses and workers must actively control against the transmission of COVID-19. By working together to adapt, and promote, safe work practices consistent with advice from health authorities. These principles were developed to support the nationally consistent guidance which can be found on Safe Work Australia's hub, and compliments the national roadmap to a COVID safe Australia. This roadmap is a three-step framework to gradually remove restrictions, reopen business, and transition workers back to the workplace.

As we are saying right now, different states and territories are in different stages and will adapt as there is a need to respond to an outbreak.

MC:

Comcare's had questions from our stakeholders about the Commonwealth book on safety laws, and if they still apply while there's this global pandemic at play. Do those Commonwealth work health safety laws still apply, and has there been a change to the duties that fall underneath them?

Justin Napier:

Yes, absolutely. The Commonwealth work health safety laws still apply, and the duties of PCBUs officers, and workers also remain unchanged. So, a few key points here, PCBUs need to maintain a work environment that is without risk to health and safety. Officers have a duty to exercise due diligence to ensure their PCBU meets its duties to protect workers, and other person's against harm to health and safety. So, this means, among other things, that an officer must ensure that the PCBU has in place appropriate systems of work, and actively monitors, and evaluates WHS management. Businesses must in consultation with works, and HSRs, assess the new risks that are presented, and follow the risk management process, which we'll discuss in further detail shortly. PCBUs need to ensure that their policies and procedures are updated, and that these reflect the risk management steps that you have taken.

And finally, workers also have duties, including taking reasonable care for their own health and safety. We'll cover this a bit more later on.

MC:

I've just been asked to clarify for our listeners, the work health safety legislation refers to PCBU, which is Person Conducting a Business or Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking, which effectively means the employing organisation, or employer. So, for the purposes of our webinar, we'll use the term ‘employer’ to mean PCBU, just to step away from the jargon a little bit. It's important to note that the Work Health Safety Act does also call out particular duties for the PCBU, which again we will refer to as employer. But it also has particular officer duties and these shouldn't be confused as they are different but mutually supportive.

As employers, and workers continue to maintain their duties under the Work [Health]and Safety Act to ensure a safe working environment, Justin, can you tell us a bit about Comcare's regulatory approach while responding to this evolving COVID-19 environment?

Justin Napier:

Absolutely. Comcare's been working collaboratively with Safe Work Australia, including the relevant state and territory WHS regulators over this time. Comcare's approach is outlined in the nation statement of regulatory intent, which describes the enforcement approach that regulators will take to ensure compliance with the WHS Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of serious incidents, and fatalities that may occur, for Comcare it's business as usual, and our approach remains unchanged. It's important to note that employers in the Comcare scheme should notify Comcare of all confirmed COVID-19 cases that are work-related, and arise from the business, or undertaking of the employer. And I'd like to highlight that for COVID related issues, where genuine attempts have been made to comply with WHS laws are supportive an education approach will be taken by Comcare.

Lastly, if a notification has been received relating to COVID, we will consider and address the risks to health and safety according to our standard regulatory procedures, and we will decide whether regulatory action is required on a case by case basis. To assist you, Comcare has created an e-learn module titled, Managing WHS Risks Relating to COVID-19. This can be found on Comcare's LMS system that holds many other online training modules.

MC:

The key take away is here, as I understand this, the Commonwealth work health safety laws still apply, including notifications of incidents that take place. The employers should notify Comcare of all confirmed COVID-19 cases that are work related and arise from the business or undertaking of the employer. Now, Justin, you mentioned before that employers and their officers need to manage risks to work health and safety. And one of our most common questions that have been asked through our work health safety helpdesk is on risk management guidance during COVID-19. Can you tell us how the work health safety risk management process applies to COVID-19?

Justin Napier:

Yes, certainly. Employers need to identify, asses, implement, and evaluate control measures. The risk management process is the same, the risks related to COVID-19. You must assess the risks to workers and others in the workplace. Your risk assessments should be reviewed periodically, or as the operating environment changes. An example of this could be in response to changes to public health restrictions. The review of the risk assessment needs to make sure there is ongoing appropriateness and effectiveness to managing that risk.

MC:

As employers always need to identify, assess, implement and evaluate our... [addressing chat questions] a few examples of when a new, or a review of the risk assessment should appear. And that's great because we actually prepared a slide on this one and it lines up with some of the questions that have asked through the helpdesk administration. So, the question is, when a new, or a review of a risk assessment should occur?

Justin Napier:

Risk assessments need to be conducted and/or reviewed when one of the following things happens; When a new risk has emerged. When features of the workplace, or the nature of the work has changed. When responding to an incident. For example, where a worker has tested positive to COVID-19. When responding to concerns raised by workers, HSRs or others within that workplace. When there are changes to work practices, procedures, or work environment. Examples of this might include for instance, customer aggression in the workplace, or a need for work related travel. Or, high work demand, or people working in isolation. Also, when workers re-commenced or you are in the process of increasing operations following a shut down, or a time of reduced operations-you need to revisit the risk assessment.

And finally, when workers are introduced back into the workplace following work from home, or standout arrangements.

MC:

And as we know, this situation can evolve and change really rapidly, and we've certainly had more than a few queries about work health safety and consultation. So, with a need to respond really quickly at times, is consultation and all that still required?

Justin Napier:

Yes, absolutely it is. Like when managing any other workplace risk, employers must consult with their workers, and HSRs at each step of the risk management process. The workers experience their understanding of the tasks involved in their job, and their ideas will assist the employer to identify all hazards and choose control measures that are practical and effective.

MC:

Thanks again for that overview of the work health safety risk management process and how it applies to COVID-19. But now I'm going to move onto discussing some of the more specific hazards and risks associated with COVID-19 and response with the some of the things that employers can do to respond. So, over to Natalie. I wonder if you can tell us about some of the issues that employers have been presented with, and have been responding to during the pandemic?

Natalie Bekis:

Absolutely. When COVID-19 pandemic escalated a few months ago, it has required unprecedented and rapid response by workplaces. It's fair to say that not many workplaces today actually look the same as they did at the beginning of 2020. For many workplaces, the initial response to COVID-19 resulted in significant change in a really short period of time, including the changing place of work, as we've even heard today in terms of our audience today, a huge amount of workers from home where it can be reasonably done. We've seen an emergence of new technology such as the platforms we're using today but also other technologies, as well as meeting new physical and psychosocial risks that have emerged, that we really need to be conscious of while working from home, as well as in our usual workplaces.

During this time, many agencies and employers have set up remote communication channels, quickly trying to respond and think about new ways to engage their workforce when working from home, to collaborate across teams, and to work remotely like we do here at Comcare. We run nationally, and we have many dispersed and virtual teams.  Moving forward, employers should now be taking a more considered look at the technologies that are available. The processes, and I guess, the policies particularly around working arrangements, and looking at, and exploring, and adapting flexible working policies, and adapting new business continuity plans to be ready for whatever the future holds. After all, it is 2020 and who knows what's next.

Lastly, I just wanted to highlight some of the principles that underpin the COVID safe Australia that Justin already mentioned before. So, some of these also include, which I know many of us have heard, is our own ensuring of safe physical distance of 1.5 metres, or four metres square. I guess for those that live in Victoria but a lesson for all of us across the country is stay at home if you are unwell, and that is something that employers must continue to communicate to their workers about. The need for frequent for disinfecting in common areas, particularly for those workplaces that are still working within the usual work environment. And obviously again, for those that are in Victoria, we have seen a recent introduction of masks, when we leave our homes, and that is for both new challenges and risks to think about not only personally but also in terms of workplaces and how we run our daily lives.

Again, for those outside of Victoria who aren't transitioning back to the workplace, there is a need to think about transition plans and COVID safe transition plans, will be key to actually return to safe work. And Justin will cover these a little bit later too.

MC:

So, you highlighted there's obviously some big changes for a lot of workers and their workplaces. Many individuals having transitioned from having working from home, we certainly seen that in our live poll with at least two to every one person who's home. We've had quite a few questions coming through about the biggest risks that are arising, or related to, working from home. Can you talk us through some of those?

Natalie Bekis:

There's plenty of physical risks that can be present in a workers’ home, and these can change over time. It's really important that a home meets the same work health and safety requirements. So, it is a requirement that yes, our workplace needs to meet the Work Health and Safety Act and the requirements within the Act but so does a working from home arrangement. And so, things... and it will be physical workplaces, meaning it needs to be a safe workplace where appropriate risk management needs to be in place. Individual workers may have different hazards and risks in their workplace, and in working from home, and in a remote setting.

So, examples of these obviously include, work station setup, the environment, lighting, noise, ventilation, electrical safety. As well as there might be some pre-existing injuries that need to be accommodated for, not only in the workplace but also at home. As Justin said earlier, it's vital that employers consult with workers to understand and identify what are the risks, and to also develop their communication strategies to manage them effectively.

MC:

It sounds like there is quite a bit to think about that we might not have previously considered. Where can an employer, or a worker go for guidance materials, or support on managing the hazards or risks associated with working from home?

We've also been asked about, what needs to be considered if this becomes a longer-term, or a more permanent arrangement for workers? Do you got any guidelines, or guidance around that as well?

Natalie Bekis:

Absolutely, [MC] you're right. There is absolutely a lot to think about. I'm really happy to say that Comcare has been working really positively with key agencies such as the Australian Public Service Commission and has developed a working from home checklist that provides both employers and workers with practical guidance to help them meet their work health and safety obligations, as well as making sure they have a safe environment while working from home. So, the checklist is intended to be a practical tool for workers and employers to use to help identify some of the frequent hazards and risks that workers may experience, in their home or workplace that needs to be mitigated. So, some of these include working from home ergonomic set up, safe from trips and hazards, the need for workers to take appropriate breaks, and to look at healthy work practices.

Like, stretching, taking breaks, looking after their physical health, and also their posture. Setting up an agreed communication system between employers and workers which is really critical right now to ensure that work expectations and demands are understood by both the worker, and the employer. Looking after worker's mental health is critical. We are hearing, and it's emerging through the research, an absolutely increasing cognitive load experienced by the increase in screen time. And we really need to be thinking innovatively about using other forms of communication. So, maybe having walking meetings while having them on the phone. Not always sitting behind your desk to have your meetings. And the other key one is the boundaries between work and home, and establishing some positive routines that help to prevent that overlap and distinction between when am I at work and  when am I at home.

These checklists can be found on the Comcare's Website. We have a Coronavirus website page dedicated to this, and so I'm pleased to say that the checklist can be available there as well. And perhaps we could a little bit of a thumbs up poll on and asking people whether or not they have been, and seen these guidance - and whether or not they have been to our website. Maybe we could come back to some of those results at the end of the webinar. The other thing that I want to point out to your second point [MC], was around longer-term working arrangements. So, absolutely and it's fair to say that we all thought would be over in a couple of weeks. It's not. And we really need to be thinking in the longer-term nature of the pandemic.

We have set up some guidance around longer term arrangements. We understand that with longer term arrangement, there is need for employers to think through engagement and communication with their workers a lot more to ensure good work design. Whilst, also managing the needs and outcomes of the business, and also work and productivity. So, these documents can also be found on the Comcare website as well.

MC:

Before we dive into some of the other risks workers might be exposed to in this environment...[questions in chat] we've had questions come in about access to slides. Absolutely, we'll give you access to the slides after the session. And thanks for all the questions and comments that are coming in so far. And Justin, we've talked a bit about the responsibilities in employers to provide a healthy and safe environment. Can you tell us a bit about the workers obligations? It might be worth mentioning also that the Work Health Safety Act’s definition of a worker also includes contractors and labor hire as well those directly employed by employers.

Justin Napier:

Workers continue to have obligations under the WHS Act, including when working from home. So, these involve taking reasonable care for their own health and safety, complying so far as they are reasonably able with any reasonable instructions given by their employer, cooperating with any reasonable policy or procedure of the employer relating to health and safety, and importantly, notifying their manager, or supervisor of any work related incidents which occur, including those that occur in the home. Additionally, workers have obligations to report any changes that may affect their health and safety when working from home. They must maintain a safe work environment, such as having a designated work area. For example, ensuring the work area is comfortable, and has safe access, providing adequate lighting and ventilation, repairing any uneven surfaces, or removing any trip hazards.

They also need to manage their own in-house safety. Such as, maintaining electrical equipment, and installing and maintaining smoke alarms.

MC:

It's really important to recognise that all of us as workers have got responsibilities for work health and safety, not just employers. And it's something that each of us has to take seriously. So, just take a look at the poll results. It looks like it's about 50/50 between those people who have looked at the content on our Coronavirus web page, and people who haven't yet but intend to in the future. So, back to you, Natalie. Now, I understand that the current environment's highlighted a number of psychosocial risks that our workers may be experiencing. I wonder if you can tell us a bit about some of those.

Natalie Bekis:

Psychosocial risks are really important, and something that we shouldn't forget about during COVID-19. There's been a complete shift in the way that we worked and we've talked about that today already with so many people working from home. And management of our psychosocial risks along with physical, should play a major role in our decision making, and actions in response to the pandemic. Some of the psychosocial risks our workers, and even ourselves may be experiencing during this time include increased work demand. For many, work has... We've had to adjust our work, we've had to change, and rapidly change. Increasing work demands, and increasing requirements, in terms of the work that we need to do.

But on the flip side, we're also hearing about low job demand. Usual work may have changed, or even reduced impacting on worker satisfaction. And this may also impact on a workers mental health and wellbeing, particularly as we start to hear about job insecurity as the economic conditions deteriorate. We're also hearing about a breakdown or lack of communication where workers are working in isolation, or maybe feeling like they're having a sense of reduced support, or feeling more isolated from colleagues, and from their work environment. We also know that many businesses are doing it really tough, and that workplaces are experiencing a significant amount of  organisational change. Managing change and risks in a rapidly changing environment like COVID-19, we absolutely understand is really hard. But it's really important, and ultimately it is a duty under the Work Health and Safety Act that employers talk regularly to their workers, and understand both the physical, and psychosocial risks that are present and emerging.

Some risks may be unique in your workplace, or your industry but we need to assess the risk and properly mitigate them.

MC:

I understand that there's some psychosocial risks that could affect workers that are not necessarily directly work related. Can you talk us through some of those also?

Natalie Bekis:

During the time of uncertainty and change, there are many risks associated with our mental health and wellbeing as a result of COVID-19. While they may not all be work related, our workers can directly, or indirectly be impacted from a partner, or a family member. And it's really important for manager's to consider these. People may be struggling with feelings of uncertainty, stress, anxiety, and other may be adjusting self-isolation, longer periods of working from home, or just away from their teams and their colleagues. Also, at home, and our family life may have gone through a significant change. Our previous daily routines no longer exist, and for some, this has been really confronting.

So, some of the risks that we need to be mindful of that are not necessarily work related. So, financial stress, and that's a big one right now, is something we're hearing a lot about given the current economic environment. Fatigue, I already spoke about this before but definitely in terms of that is emerging within increasing cognitive load and increasing in screen time. Balancing work and carrying responsibilities, so that's one dear to my heart, and I'm home schooling, having less access to before and after school care and other supports. That may also include things like caring for vulnerable family members and friends, certainly with the emergence of the age care issues that we're starting to hear about, I know that, that is very stressful for some families.

We also have seen changes in our activities that would usually support our mental health. So, for example, going to the gym, exercising, working outdoors without a mask, social supports, meeting for dinners, and so on and so forth, and for some of us, we can't do that right now. There are also, unfortunately, too many reports that we are hearing around increased exposure to domestic violence. That has been escalating during the COVID-19 period. And so, that's something too workers and employers will need to be mindful of.

MC:

So, although those risks may not be necessarily work related, we of course do need to consider them, and think about how they might be affecting our workers and their health and safety. Now, the team's asked me to mention that we've got a lot of questions coming through, and we'll be answering more on our resources page that we'll be sending out once the link to that is ready. Now, the ones that we have had come through the registration process have been asking around what guidance and support are available for employers looking after worker's mental health, and assist workers through the challenging times, and to help mitigate those associated risks?

Natalie Bekis:

That's a really important question. We have all been accommodating to change over the last few months, and it certainly hasn't been easy. We should be constantly maintaining a good level of communications with our workers, and within our teammates, through a variety of channels that are available to us. Supervisors and managers should also look out for and be conscious of changes in worker's mood, and their performance, and the early signs that someone's doing so well, and we'll enable them to intervene early if necessary, and appropriate. Comcare has also developed some excellent guidance material to help look after your own mental health, and that of your workers.

So, some of the topics that we've looked to cover off; Guidance for parents and carers. Importance of physical health and the impact that, that can have on our mental health. Supporting others through times of uncertainty and distress, and that's something certainly that we've heard particularly for those workers that are at the front line at the moment and delivering essential services to these Australian Communities that they are seeing a lot of distress, and uncertainty. And also, just responding to uncertainty more broadly. I'd also like to highlight that some of our partners such as Beyond Blue have further resources, and also have a national hotline available to anyone who may need support. We can make those resources too, on our website.

MC:

I'll [MC]reinforce that by pointing out that all of the resources that we'll be referring today will be sent to you in a link to a resources page that relates to this webinar. Now Natalie, there's been a bit of talk about a mental health and wellbeing pandemic response plan. Can you tell us how this relates?

Natalie Bekis:

Absolutely. The national cabinet has endorsed the mental health and wellbeing pandemic response plan. And this has really been driven by the national mental health commission. It's a reflection of the importance that we need to respond to the psychosocial risks that have been brought to the forefront due to COVID-19. Including the impacts or economic downturn through loss of income and jobs, and uncertainty of the future. It's also really important to highlight that all states and territories have endorsed, and embraced the plans. So, it will be a big one to watch moving forward.

MC:

Thanks Natalie for those insights on both the physical, and the psychosocial risks during this really challenging time. It might be interesting to actually do another thumb poll on how the pandemic has weighed on you, the audience's mental health and wellbeing. Has it had a negative effect, a positive effect, both positive and negative, or hasn't had much influence? So, we've talked a bit about working from home. But as we know, a large proportion of our jurisdiction has continued to work in their normal workplace, particularly those in front line or operational organisations, agencies, and businesses. And those workers may be experiencing other hazards and risks. I'm wondering if you could talk to those?

Natalie Bekis:

Workers who have remained in the physical workplace, especially those in frontline roles may have seen changes to risks and hazards that they are facing. Some of them, we're hearing played out in the media, and some of them include things like an increase in client aggression, or occupational violence. There's some workplaces experiencing higher levels of aggression than usual, including physical and verbal assault, discrimination, racism, or stigma stemming from COVID-19. Environmental hazards, for example being concerned or worried about exposed to the COVID-19 virus at work itself and the transmission to others.

Feelings of anxiousness, or worry about not having the right equipment, or training, like PPE [personal protective equipment], and we certainly saw that in the early days of the pandemic, and hopefully we've got that sorted now. As well as a break down of deterioration of workplace relationships that may increase in workplace bullying, aggression, or harassment, as people feel the strain and stress of an increased workload, or even on job insecurity.

MC:

I'm just looking at that poll on how the influence of mental health and wellbeing, and really interestingly, we've definitely got some people who had negative effects, maybe a few less with positive effects but a large number of people who are acknowledging that it's had both positive and a negative effect with over 100 respondents saying it's had both a positive and negative effect. Which is really, really interesting. So, one of the attendees [live chat], Natalie, has also asked about where they can go for more information on work health safety duties to manage occupational violence. Where can they go?

Natalie Bekis:

Absolutely. So, Safe Work Australia's website, there is a COVID-19, or Coronavirus hub there. It's an excellent source and has really detailed information about how to identify, assess and manage risks in relation to work related environments. There's also specific sections broken up by industry types. So, you can look for your industry type and then that guidance is specific for your industry. You can also look at the Commonwealth Code of Practice, how to manage work health and safety risks. Again, this will also be made available after today's webinar. It might be worth doing another thumbs up poll while we're in the mood, and just seeing how many people have actually already visited the Coronavirus related information that's on the Safe Work Australia website?

MC:

The team will be putting that up as we speak. We mentioned that we'll be putting up all of those resources and materials and sending out to the participants after the webinar. Now, before we move onto discussions about transitioning back into the physical workplace, the last question on this particular topic is, with so much information about, where do you go for a trusted source of information? And how do I know I'm looking at the right thing?

Natalie Bekis:

You're absolutely right. There are many sources of information, and resources available right now. Firstly, it is really important that we look at credible sources of information and that doesn't include Facebook. We also need to follow local and state public health information, which includes controls and restrictions, recognising that these are changing regularly, and our decision making and actions need to be agile as we respond to these. A recent example of this has been obviously in Victoria, with the mandatory requirement of wearing masks, and also the rapid change back to isolation, which we've also seen. If you're in the Comcare scheme, Comcare's website is home to many resources and links. You can also head to Safe Work Australia's website, as I've said before, which has specific guidance on all industries and how to manage different hazards, and risks as they present. You'll also find some of the Australian Government Department websites hold really valuable sources of guidance and information, which includes the Australian Public Service Commission, The National COVID Coordination Commission, the Department of Health, and the Fair Work Ombudsman.

MC:

Thanks Natalie, for talking us through those risks presented by COVID-19. And of course, noting that the list is in no way exhaustive. The thumb poll, so a lot of people have access to the Safe Work Australia materials and we have plenty of people who might not have yet but do intend to in the future. So, transitioning workers back into the workplace, we're going to shift back to Justin. Guidance for conducting risk assessments has been another question that's been frequently asked through the helpdesk. Justin, what do employers need to consider when they're transitioning workers back into physical workplaces?

Justin Napier:

I think the first point to make here is that Australia's state and territories are currently in different stages of restrictions and therefore, transitioning back into the workplace will not be consistent across the country. So, your transition plans will need to be individually tailored to each specific state or territory that you're operating in. With that said, Safe Work Australia's website has some excellent information relevant to many industry sectors as they transition back to the usual workplace. There's information and guidance on risk assessments, emergency plans, physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting as well as hygiene procedures. It's also really important that your transition plan focuses on the continued delivery of critical functions to ensure your workplaces are safe for everyone.

MC:

I'm just wondering if you could explore that a little bit more deeply for us. What are some of the considerations that employers need to look at when they're developing those plans?

Justin Napier:

Sure. So, following on from the previous question, and noting that plans need to be individual tailored, I think that the diversity of working environments in the Comcare jurisdiction means a single approach is just not practical. So, this means that each organisation's transition plan will also need to be tailored to the particular circumstances of that organisation. This may mean if you have workers for instance in different geographical locations, you may need to have multiple plans to cater the public health directions issued in each of those locations. These plans will need to be flexible, and agile enough to respond to outbreaks. And changes in circumstances. And they need to be developed in consultation with HSRs and workers. Lastly, employers should use information from Comcare and Safe Work Australia's websites, as well as advice from the relevant Department of Health, and the National COVID Coordination Commission to assist in developing these plans.

MC:

Thanks Justin. And we've had a couple of questions about the clarifying the 1.5 metre rule, that's about measuring between work stations. It isn't specifically outlined in the material, and the post implies shoulder to shoulder - two arms lengths. Am I reading that correctly? So, the question was, can you clarify how the 1.5 metre rule is to be measured for work stations? This isn't specifically outlined in the material, and the poster implies shoulder to shoulder, or is it two arms lengths?

Justin Napier:

So, there appears to be some confusion around applying the physical distancing rules. The 1.5 metre physical distancing requirements relate to maintaining the distance people to reduce the likelihood of exposure to micro droplet and others. Not the physical distance between desks. So, you measure between the people involved. However, employers must also consider the four square metre rule together with the 1.5 metre physical distancing requirement. So, employers will need to make sure there's four square metres in the workplace per person, as well as ensuring that workers are 1.5 metres apart where possible. So, there's a calculation involved for employers in that.

MC:

Other questions that are coming in [through live chat] around, what needs to be discussed with workers when they're creating and implementing their transition plans, after returning back to the workplace or out of the workplace.

Justin Napier:

As we've been saying today, when managing any risks, consultation with workers is a must. So, employers should be discussing and considering things like, who needs to be in the physical workplace? Can you prioritise your workforce that needs to be in the physical workplace? You need to consider the personal circumstances of workers. For instance, those who are classified as vulnerable workers, or some might have someone in their household who is. Do you have workers who have caring responsibilities for children, or other family members? You'll need to respond to localised outbreaks and where they impact the workplace and your operations. You'll also need to consider how you might modify workplace attendance arrangements to manage those physical distancing requirements.

For example, can you look at staggered start or finish times? Alternate rostering of staff across your business, or working from [home] arrangements. So, I really want to highlight here that conducting and reviewing risk assessments is critical to your successful response to this pandemic. And indeed, it's a fundamental obligation under the WHS Act.

MC:

Thanks Justin. And another thumb poll {through live chat] that we might also put up is around that... For those people who have worked from home during COVID-19, have you had a preference to working from home, working from the office, or preferring a mix of both? So, another question that's come in from the work health safety helpdesk has been asking around, can workers be directed to return to the office, or to stay at home? Again, to you, Justin.

Justin Napier:

So, whether workers return to the usual workplace environment, or a different workplace environment, or continue to work from home is a matter for the individual organisation. There's not a one size fits all response I can give to that question. As I've mentioned, states and territories will be in different stages at different times. So, if your organisation operates across multiple jurisdictions, you'll in all likelihood need to be... Have different arrangements and be mindful of those particular requirements in each location. As we've discussed, assessing which workers need to be in the workplace is really important. And taking into consideration the nature of work as well as the individual circumstances that apply. So, just to note, this answer's based on WHS requirements. Workers and employers should also seek advice from the Fair Work Ombudsman around pay and leave entitlements with workers being directed back to a physical workplace.

MC:

So, maybe it's worth cracking open then, what the considerations that workplaces need to have when they're in the physical workplace?

Justin Napier:

So, employers in consultation need to consider the industry and nature of the work that is being completed. So, this might include things like what lessons the organisation has learnt from responding to COVID-19 so far. How flexible working arrangements have worked for that organisation. For instance, a mixed mode of office and home-based work apply into the future? Is that an appropriate treatment? You should also consider, how will physical distancing work in your workplace. For example, how will team meetings occur? And how will you reinforce and promote good hygiene practices, and physical distancing? You'll also need to direct workers to not attend the workplace when feeling unwell, and have a plan in place to manage when a worker is showing symptoms at work.

Risk assessments will also need to be completed, or updated if a new risk arises, along with any related policies and procedures. And lastly, consider individual flexible working arrangements based on identified vulnerabilities, carer's responsibilities, worker's concerns, and organisational requirements. Natalie, is there anything else that you'd like to highlight here?

Natalie Bekis:

Just a couple of points that I'd like to reinforce that you've already made about the importance of communication and consultation. So, change and uncertainty can be a significant stressor. For some. Therefore, updates from an employer. So, just regular communication. Even if you don't have anything to really say that the situation hasn't changed, it can be really important as it provides assurance to workers about what is actually happening. Workers should discuss options for return to usual workplace environments with their managers, and what this will look like in the short term, as well as in the longer term arrangements. Noting that the usual workplace environment will for many organisations continue to be the primary place of work. It is critical for employers to really understand the workplace risks and hazards, and that they consult with their workers to genuinely understand what those hazards and risks look like in operation, and consequences of any risk mitigation that's taken place.

We've also talked a lot in the discussion today about identifying, and assessing, and implementing controls around risks. It's really important for employers to consult with workers on these elements but also in evaluating the effectiveness of these controls as the situation continues to evolve. Using staff surveys, polls like we've done today are a really good opportunity for workers to provide feedback on policies and procedures, are now an example of how communicating and consultation can be run whilst working remotely.

MC:

So, Justin, before we go to wrap up this section, I'll get you to quickly mention some of the other considerations that employers need to have before transitioning workers back into the workplace, and as the situation evolves.

Justin Napier:

So, we've provided a lot of information today on the considerations that employers need to be taking to ensure the health and safety of workers, and others. This situation is ever evolving and we just won't know what's coming next. Our transition plans, and our controls need to be reviewed regularly. Our plans and actions need to be sustainable but also able to respond to outbreaks or changes to any circumstances that the workplace is experiencing. Maintaining safe workplaces depends on employers and workers working together. Both parties need to observe the essential safety messages around good physical hygiene, physical distancing, staying home if unwell, and following the risk management process when changes take place, or when new hazards or risks arise.

Employers also need to have a regular reporting flow that capture compliance with the plan, and how you respond to any incidents that arise. Keeping records of any consultation, procedures, or changes to work instructions is incredibly important. Along with details of any training completed by workers, and things like infection control and PPE use in your organisation. And finally, having a strong cleaning regime with this being reviewed regularly and adjusted where necessary to reflect the local circumstances and local health advice is incredibly important too.

MC:

Thanks Justin and Natalie for all of your insights, and responding to all those questions. Now, we might wrap up by just throwing you one last question which is the biggest learning that you've had from this pandemic experience today? There's one or two key points that you've had from the pandemic experience so far. Justin?

Justin Napier:

First observation is that people and workplaces are adaptable. I've been incredibly impressed by the responsiveness of workplaces to this hither to unknown workplace hazard and risk. There's been an amazing response from the technology, the working from home, the risk assessments, new job roles and the like. So, that's been really positive for me. And that shows me that the principles and the WHS Act are sound and effective. We've been talking a lot about HSRs and consultation, I've seen a lot of that and we've stressed that a lot today, that needs to continue, and the last point I'd make is it's really important that you document your controls and the risk assessments that you're undertaking, and any changes to your procedures. Absolutely fundamental that you do that. Thanks everyone.

MC:

Thanks Justin. And Natalie?

Natalie Bekis:

So, for me, human beings are really resilient. If we look back in time, there has been other times in history where we have seen pandemics, major challenges to the human race and I guess this is one. And I guess, we've not only seen workplaces change, and adapt, and evolve but as human beings, we can evolve, and we can adapt, and we need to remain positive on that. And I guess the other key takeaway for me is that we've been talking for a long time in the research around the future of work. I guess what I want to say is my observation is the future of work is now. And we need to stop talking about it like it's something that's going to happen. It really is here now and we really need to be embracing those disruptions to our workplace and thinking about, what does that mean for our workplaces now, and into the future? And how workplaces need to continue to adapt to meet the new challenges.

But they also bring new opportunities as well, and we really need to think about what's going to support a productive and thriving workplace now and into the future as well?  Thanks everyone.

MC:

Thanks so much both Natalie, and Justin, for taking a ride in the hot seats, answering our audience questions and giving us your insights. Before everyone goes [live webinar event], I'm really happy to announce that Comcare's continuing to work on enhancing its education and engagement offer with new content and digital options. We're looking to do more webinars in the future on topics that you're interested in. So, please give us your feedback.

Page last reviewed: 30 July 2020
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Date printed 03 Aug 2021

https://www.comcare.gov.au/about/forms-publications/transcriptions/navigating-new-normal-webinar-video-transcript