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Comcare webinar - Accelerated workplace change in the face of COVID-19 video transcript

Video transcript of Webinar Accelerated workplace change in the face of COVID-19 presented on 8 October 2020.

Watch the video of the Comcare webinar.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Hello, and welcome to this Safe Work Month webinar titled Accelerated Workplace Change in the Face of COVID-19. My name is Andrew Crane and I am your host for today's webinar. National Safe Work Month is held every year in October. An initiative of Safe Work Australia. It's supported by work health safety regulators in each state and territory. Comcare is a national work health and safety regulator is hosting a series of webinars across Safe Work Month connected to this year's theme, Work Health and Safety Through COVID-19. Today, our webinar will be co-presented with Safe Work Australia. We'll be discussing some of the rapid and large scale changes that workplaces of different sizes and industries have contended with in the face of COVID-19.

Before we officially start, I'll cover some of the housekeeping matters related to this event. This webinar is being delivered through Microsoft, live events platform, and this includes a question and comment function that you can use during the session. So you can actively engage by submitting your questions and comments throughout the session.

The question and comment function can be accessed by clicking the question mark menu icon that looks like the example that's displayed on the screen right now in the red circle. Well, you've got some time allocated towards the end of the session to answer some of the questions you've submitted here, and during the registration process. I can absolutely assure you that we'll look at every question and comment that's submitted, even if we don't have time to respond directly, they'll certainly help to influence and shape our future content and events. My name's Andrew Crane, and I'm part of Comcare's education and engagement team. And I'll be your host for today's webinar. And on behalf of Comcare and Safe Work Australia, I'd like to acknowledge the lands on which we are all virtually meeting and the traditional custodians of those lands, the elders, past, present and emerging.

Today, we're joined by Meredith Bryant from Safe Work Australia and Justin Napier from Comcare. I'll let you deliver a presentation. As I previously mentioned, we'll follow this with some time to answer some of the questions that you've submitted. So now I'd like to officially welcome and introduce Meredith Bryant who's the branch manager of Evidence and Strategic Policy at Safe Work Australia. Meredith leads Safe Work Australia's work health and safety, worker's compensation, data and research function, and has responsibility for COVID-19 coordination projects. Meredith, to get us going can you tell us a bit about Safe Work Australia, and how COVID-19 pandemic has affected you and your work.

Meredith Bryant:

Thanks Andrew, for that introduction. And I'm very pleased to be involved with this webinar as part of National Safe Work Month. The Safe Work Australia agency has approximately 100 staff with the majority based in our Canberra office. And during COVID-19 to manage our work health and safety risks, we encouraged our staff to work remotely. Having upgraded recently all staff to laptops. Currently, we're trialling a 60/40 arrangement where staff work in the office 60% of the time, or work from home the rest of the time. And these working from home arrangements take into consideration the relevant health advice for our location, and we've received positive feedback from staff that they're enjoying the flexibility that these working arrangements present.

So for those who don't know, Safe Work Australia is a national policy body for work health and safety and workers' compensation. Our tripartite member body developed and maintains the model work health and safety laws, which have been implemented in all Australian jurisdictions, except for Victoria in Western Australia. Safe Work Australia does not regulate or enforce work health and safety or workers' compensation arrangements. And this is the responsibility of the Work Health and Safety regulators and workers' compensation authorities in each jurisdiction. In the Commonwealth, of course, these roles seats with Comcare.

Barely this year Safe Work Australia was tasked by the National Cabinet with developing national COVID-19 work health and safety guidance material. Our website has become a central hub of COVID-19 work health and safety guidance for workplaces. Information is available for more than 35 industries covering topics, including work health and safety duties, risk assessments, physical distancing, cleaning, hygiene and mental health. Our COVID-19 guidance has received over seven million page views so far, which shows that workplaces have a big appetite for this type of information. We're continually updating our COVID-19 guidance as knowledge about the virus evolves and health risks that are able to be assessed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our world and our workplaces. Every Australian worker, employer and business has been impacted. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 73% of businesses continue to try it with modifications as a result of COVID-19. 55% of businesses are accessing government support, including wage subsidies. 13% of businesses decreased numbers in employees, while 6% of businesses actually increased the number of employees. And finally, 47% of businesses reported a decrease in revenue.

These impacts will be long lasting and more than ever strong work health and safety practices are critical to keeping workers safe and preventing the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, Australia has a robust work health and safety framework based on the model work health and safety laws developed by Safe Work Australia. And the model laws are principles-based and purposely drafted to consider a range of risks and working arrangements. So the laws require employers to protect the health and safety of their workers, including themselves and other staff, contractors and volunteers and others like clients, customers and visitors at the workplace.

To meet their duties under work health and safety laws during COVID-19, there are things that employers must do. They've got to keep up to date on the COVID-19 situation and be aware of the hazards affecting the workplace from COVID-19. They've got to ensure that processes and procedures in place to manage work health and safety risks arising from COVID-19 and that they're being followed. And they've got to ensure that the workplace is resourced properly to manage these work health and safety risks.

So because the duties under the model work health and safety laws already mapped quite well to the risks arising from COVID-19, there wasn't a need for us to change the legal framework to deal with the pandemic. What we did do was prepare national COVID-19 guidance to explain how duty holders could manage the risks arising from COVID-19 and provide practical tools for example checklists to help duty holders to do this. Our website contains a wealth of material relevant to businesses of all sizes and their workers covering everything from infographics on types and uses of face masks, posters and signage for the workplace, checklists on working from home and tailored industry information.

We've developed a series of COVID-19 case studies that cover various topics, including mental health consultation, use of lifts and storing things like hand sanitiser. Why did we do this? Well, the fact is that COVID-19 has forced workplaces to adapt at a rapid pace. And we wanted to help businesses use the existing work health and safety framework to develop a systematic and a practical response. To effectively manage the work health and safety risks associated with COVID-19, workplaces have had to reassess, review and implement new or different work health and safety policies and procedures to address these risks. And often in a very short timeframe.

Businesses have had to adjust the way they do business to keep staff and customers safe, all the while trying to manage operations in an economically challenging environment. It's pretty phenomenal when we think about it. We've seen workplaces undergo changes to do with workplace facilities, for example, modifying workplace setups for effective physical distancing, increasing the amount of cleaning and ventilation and ensuring there's ample hand washing facilities and hand sanitiser around the workplace.

workplaces have had to rejig their hours, worker shift and encourage workers to work from home to accommodate those physical distancing requirements. Businesses have also had to make changes to how their work is done. For example, changing business models to online formats, rather than relying on those face-to-face interactions. And finally, they've had to make changes to workspaces to maintain safety. For example, workplaces putting up physical barriers between staff and their customers.

So what does a good work health and safety response look like against this landscape? We know that sound work health and safety practice, hazard identification and risk management are more important than ever. As a result of COVID-19, workplaces have faced new work health and safety hazards and risks. Of course, this involves that ongoing management of the risk of exposure to the virus itself through strict physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning protocols. But there are also other work health and safety risks associated with COVID-19 that need to be managed. Such as new or change risks associated with isolated work, mental health, workplace violence and working from home. All these risks will remain for the foreseeable future.

Identifying and managing one risk in the workplace can often give rise to others. And lift capacity is a good example of this. Early on in the pandemic, it was positive that many employers took steps to implement safe work practices for riding in lifts, limiting capacity, implementing that cleaning of high touch points. What became apparent however, is the knock-on effect of reducing people in the lift could quickly lead to crowding in a foyer at peak times while workers queued, creating another potential work health and safety risks that needed to be managed. Controlling the secondary risk required employees to take additional steps like providing floor markings to indicate 1.5 meter distancing, place signage, working with building management and other employees in the building or work site to implement a queuing system and encouraging workers to use this outside of peak periods or staggering work start and finish times. It was a combination of all available controls that helped effectively mitigate the risks.

This example highlights that managing work health and safety risks is an ongoing process. There's no room for a set and forget mentality. workplaces must continually assess the physical and psychological risks associated with day-to-day work and the work environment and implement control measures to manage these risks. And of course, new arrangements without explanation or consultation can create worker or customer frustration or additional risk thing overlooked. So clear communication and consultation is needed. Consulting with workers and their representatives is a critical part of risk management. By drawing on the experience, knowledge and ideas of your workers, you're more likely to identify all the hazards and choose effective control measures.

So zooming in on a couple of those new risks that I've just mentioned, it's important to be aware that the model work health and safety laws still apply if work is worked somewhere other than the usual workplace. Working from home might change, increase or create additional work health and safety risks. For example, working from home can create different psychological risks, including workers being isolated from their manager and colleagues and not having those clear boundaries between work and home life. These work in health and safety risks need to be continually reviewed and managed accordingly. You should also consider the frequency of communication with your workers, their surrounding work environment, workstation setup, and the impact of working from home on their mental health.

Employees must do what they reasonably can to manage the risks to a worker who works from home. Widespread flexible working arrangements and working from home are likely to continue for many workplaces. A significant work health and safety risk that's been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic is a risk to psychological health and safety or mental health. COVID-19 may have introduced or increased those psychosocial hazards in the workplace including things like, exposure to physical hazards and poor environmental conditions. So that could include things like exposure to the virus itself, or lack of personal protective equipment, increased work demand. So for example delivery drivers working those longer hours, low support and isolated work. For example, through working from home. It could be exposure to violence or aggression, for example, through aggressive customers. And sometimes it's poor organisational change management, for example, badly handling changing responsibilities and restructures due to COVID-19.

People are dealing with non-work related psychosocial risks such as financial stress, social isolation and uncertainty about employment. Simple things like regularly checking in with your workers to find out how they are going, staying informed with information from official sources and communicating this to workers, consulting your workers and representatives on any risks to psychological health and referring those workers to appropriate work related mental health support services can assist with managing stress from COVID-19. While you might not be able to remove the stress workers are facing at home, employers must eliminate or minimise the risk to psychological health and safety as much as reasonably possible. It's important to remember that the work health and safety laws apply to managing risks to psychological health as well as physical risks.

Of course, leaders have a vital role to play when it comes to managing safety in the workplace. Leaders who engage with their workers, promote that cultural consultation and collaboration will actively improve work health and safety in their organisation. Leaders can be at all levels of an organisation from the board and senior executives to those frontline supervisors. Leadership and culture play a vital role during any period of workplace change, particularly when a significant as COVID-19. Leaders have been faced with implementing rapid work health and safety change, merging staff and workloads remotely and supporting staff to look after their mental health.

What COVID-19 means there are multiple challenges. Safety leadership has benefits both for work health and safety and for performance more broadly. Leaders who set an example by showing their commitment to work health and safety, being actively involved in their business and encouraging and valuing workers participation, create organisations that are healthy and safe and also more likely to be innovative and productive. The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to impact our workplaces and our communities for some time. The situation can change quickly. So workplaces need to keep work health and safety a priority, and continue to review, assess and manage work health and safety risks.

Even when the risk of COVID-19 reduces, it's likely that many of the changes to our workplaces are here to stay. As Andrew said, October is National Safe Work Month. And this year's theme, Work Health and Safety Through COVID-19, acknowledges and reflects the impacts of COVID-19 on work health and safety. A National Safe Work Month is a time to focus on work health and safety, encourage discussion about safety at work and cheerleading practice. So throughout October, we're encouraging employers, business and work health and safety representatives to promote and distribute out online and printable resources relating to best practice, work health safety and COVID-19. We've also developed a series of animations to encourage workplaces to join National Safe Work Month and keep work health and safety a priority. Check out our National Safe Work Month website, download the campaign kit and use those resources to promote work health and safety in your workplace.

This Saturday 10th of October is also Mental Health Day, and we've published to preventing psychological injury at work during COVID-19 information sheet that you can share within your workplace. I really encourage you to get involved and keep a focus on work health and safety during COVID-19 and beyond. Thanks Andrew. I'll hand back to you.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Thank you, Meredith. That was great. Now, before I hand back over to Justin, who'll deliver the Comcare presentation, it's important to note that the information that's provided in the next presentation is aimed at participants within the Comcare scheme and the work health safety jurisdiction. If you're outside of that scheme, you'll need to make sure to follow your state and territory's work health safety legislation and guidance. As well as keeping up to date with local public health restrictions.

All discussions and comments made in this webinars should all be considered as general advice and information only. You'll need to consider how anything said applies in the context of your individual and workplace as specific and unique circumstances. That said, if you're within the Comcare scheme and you do have a specific work health and safety question about your work organisation circumstances and you want some advice from Comcare, you can email our work health and safety help desk found on our website where they'll provide you with a considered response and direct you to appropriate information and guidance.

So now, to our next presenter, Justin Napier from Comcare. Justin is the general manager of Comcare's Regulatory Operations Group with responsibility for the Comcare's and spectrum functions, regulatory intelligence, regulatory policy, work, health, safety audits and authorisations. Welcome Justin.

Justin Napier:

Thanks Andrew and thanks Meredith too. Good morning to you all. A special welcome to my Victorian colleagues who are doing it a bit tough at the moment and like me, you may be working from home. So this is Comcare's first event for National Safe Work Month. And the topic of the webinar today is Accelerated Workplace Change in the Face of COVID-19. Now, there wouldn't be a workplace within Australia that hasn't faced significant change this year. So this could have been through a change in the location where the work is carried out, a change in how that work is carried out, or an increase, or perhaps a decrease in the operations that you're conducting.

If you'd say to me back in January, this year, that in a few months, all of Comcare's workforce would be working from home I'd simply wouldn't have believed you. Back in January, we did not have the technology, the policies, or the risk assessments in place to allow this. We have of course, adapted and responded quickly. Now, here we are more than six months later and many of us are still working from home. We are no longer looking at some far distant future with flexible workplace arrangements, with a combination of office and home-based work are a possibility. This is real and it's fast becoming part of a new normal.

I'll spend just a few minutes talking about Comcare's role and how it is different to that of Safe Work Australia's. So Comcare is the worker's compensation insurer scheme, administrator and claims manager for Commonwealth agencies and their licensees. We're also the national work health and safety regulator, as opposed to Safe Work Australia, who's the national body responsible for work health and safety policy. Comcare's purpose is to promote and enable safe and healthy work. To do this, we work with employees and employers, to minimise harm in the workplace, to improve recovery at work and to promote the health benefits of work through a good work design.

As a regulator, an important part of our role is to enable, assist and advise their jurisdiction on their work health and safety obligations and on best practice. We seek to empower regulated entities to take responsibility for their own compliance and in so doing, increase their levels of capability and commitment to safety. We also have a role undertaking compliance enforcement action through intelligence led regulatory activities and where necessary applying regulatory sanctions, where there has been a failure by employers to effectively exercise their duty of care. Now, due to the pandemic, Comcare's regulatory approach has changed. We, along with most of the state and territory regulators signed the Safe Work Australia, Statement of Regulatory Intent. This committed Comcare to taking a common sense and practical approach to regulation. We committed to taking a supportive and educative approach to compliance and provided that duty holders were making genuine attempts to comply with requirements, noting of course, that compliance may be affected by factors outside their direct control.

Early on, our position was that employers in the Comcare WHS jurisdiction should notify us of all confirmed COVID cases, which are a result of a work related contact. We established the centralised point of contact and triage process to review and respond to all COVID notifications and to ensure a consistent national approach. While it's being business as usual for our approach to serious incidents and fatalities, we've also taken a common sense approach for all COVID related issues. Our focus has been on working with PCBUs and others to determine if appropriate safety systems have been implemented that eliminate or minimise the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. And we continue to support PCBUs through the provision of guidance and education.

We've also been very conscious of the need for harmonisation. We've made sure that our messaging is consistent with other federal departments, like the Department of Health, Safe Work Australia and the Australian Public Service Commission. To make sure our messaging is consistent, we've worked with Safe Work Australia to develop materials and where possible with other regulators. We've also actively supported and promoted Safe Work Australia's guidance. And where necessary we've released guidance that is focused on the specific needs of our jurisdiction. Being a regulator for national organisations, we've been clear about the need for workplaces to follow the relevant public health guidance in the first instance. For national employers, including many Commonwealth agencies, it's been necessary to manage the different restrictions as they apply in each state and territory. Our messaging has been clear from the outset. It's not a one size fits all approach.

Workplaces need to have adaptive work health and safety management systems that make and respond to those national differences. But also every workplace will have different risks that need to be identified and managed. We've been communicating with our jurisdiction to understand what they need during this time, what questions they might have and in which areas of compliance are unclear. We try to make sure our guidance and our information is contemporary and relevant to the changing environment. And to help us further understand and support the needs of our jurisdiction, our inspectors have contacted all PCBUs in the Comcare scheme regarding their COVID management practices and to provide information and advice.

Comcare like other organisations has been adaptive to circumstances as they change. For instances, many of you recall six months or so ago, initially we had that fast transition to working from home. Simultaneously, many frontline workplaces were grappling with new risks related to workplace exposure to COVID. Then different parts of Australia started transitioning back into the workplace at different times. And then there was a need for mandatory wearing a face mask in Victoria and the need to wear them in workplaces where physical distancing is unable to be met. And throughout the pandemic, there was an ongoing psychosocial risk that emerged and was impacting on mental health of workers. We have all needed to adapt to change. As employers, we've had to navigate through this challenging time together often without a roadmap, we've had to deal with risks that have never been considered previously. And Comcare has seen its role as offering support and guidance to assist workplaces to meet their WHS obligations and in so doing keep their workers safe.

We've developed a range of written materials, and these are all available on the Comcare website. Some examples of recent publications include guidance for call centre work, finding the right balance with flexible working arrangements and a printable poster on maintaining a COVID safe workplace. And to assist employers and workers with the use of face masks, we've developed a micro learn, which is an online tutorial that talks through the WHS obligations related to the wearing of masks and guidance on how to practically apply face masks. We have also made available printable posters to use in workplaces on how to safely wear a face covering.

Another way that Comcare guides, assists and supports workplaces is through the provision of education and training. Traditionally Comcare's education programs have been delivered through face-to-face formats. In March this year, we released our new digital learning management system or LMS. The delivery of this platform is another example of the accelerated pace of change during COVID. As face-to-face delivery has been limited during this time, this platform allows people to access on demand materials when they want and how they want. We will continue to release new e-learns and blended approaches to education and see this as a big part of the future of our education and training offering. So here's a plug for you, you can stay up to date with our resources by signing up to our learning management system, which can be found on the website. And there's some examples of the content on that slide.

So without a doubt, 2020 has been a year of accelerated and unprecedented change. The rapidly changing nature of our work and workplaces has seen the emergence of new hazards and risks. Despite this, in my view, the Work Health and Safety Act has stood the test of time. The key principles in that act continue to apply. Workplaces have been able to adapt and respond to change by ensuring that the COVID related WHS risks are assessed and managed. The act does not refer to COVID or pandemic specifically, but the principles embedded in the act allow workplaces to respond effectively. Meredith spoke about this earlier, too. There's a critical need for effective hazard identification and risk management. And this will continue to be the case as we respond to this evolving environment.

I noted earlier, it is not a one size fits all approach that applies. Risks need to be assessed frequently and they need to be relevant to circumstances that are local and any controls need to be regularly reviewed. You cannot simply set and forget. Our workplaces are changing before us and our staff might be working from home or transitioning back into the workplace. We may also have staff on the frontline who are working in high risk settings. We're also dealing with evolving public health advice and emergent community risks. Our approach to work health safety must be constantly reviewed, risk-based and adaptive.

So what is the workplace going to look like in the future? How will we manage and control these risks? Have you considered questions like, will workers continue to have flexible working arrangements in place? What are the ergonomic risks associated with working from home? How will individuals continue to balance workload and family life in this new arrangement? Are your workers exposed to other risks like violence in the home? Are your policies and procedures adaptable to changing circumstances. What about the physical workplace, is your workplace able to accommodate returning workers and make the relevant public health orders. Such as physical distancing, promoting good hygiene and the use of face masks. Is there a program of frequent cleaning and disinfecting of communal areas and high touch points in place? If you're a part of the Australian public service on top of local restrictions, agency heads need to consider the Australian Public Service Commission's circular returning to usual workplaces when making transitioning arrangements.

Comcare is developing a fact sheet to assist Commonwealth organisations to manage the return to the usual workplace. So watch out for this on our website or by connecting with us via LinkedIn or Twitter. So how do we control these risks? The work health safety principles continue to apply. The PCBU, the person conducting the business or undertaking must manage risks to health and safety by eliminating those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

So how do we do this? Well, the risk management process for COVID, this is same as you would follow for any other risk. As Meredith said earlier, it's critical that you assess and manage the risks in the context of your operating environment. Given the global reach of COVID-19, the exposure of your workers and others such as customers and clients is a foreseeable risk. The completion of a risk assessment will assist you to identify which workers and others are at risk of exposure. To determine what sources and or processes might be causing the risk. To identify if and what kind of control measures should be implemented and check the effectiveness of existing control measures.

When conducting a risk assessment, you need to consider the individual circumstances of your business. Any COVID safe plans that are applicable in any local state or territory public health orders, directions or restrictions that may be in place. Also, any risks need to be assessed and mitigated with consideration of the worker, the workplace, and the nature of work. If you're in the Comcare scheme, Comcare's WHS help desk is here to support you along with your regional inspectorate teams.

Now, Meredith spoke about how workplaces have seen rapid change over the past few months during this time of accelerated change, we've needed to rely on our work health and safety management systems. These management systems are a regulatory priority for Comcare. In 2020, our safety systems have been put to the test, starting with the bush fires taking place right before the pandemic. These events have demonstrated the importance of having an effective safety system. If your system is effective, your organisation will be responsive and adaptive to work health safety risk. To help workplaces through this time and as we transitioned back into physical workplaces, Comcare has initiated programs to proactively monitor and enforce compliance for COVID-19 WHS risk management. We've done this by contacting all our PCBUs and sharing detailed compliance checklists.

We're undertaking site visits, where possible to confirm that PCBUs have effective safety systems that actively monitor and respond to COVID-19 risks. And our inspectors are conducting workplace verifications to ensure relevant COVID controls are in place such as physical distancing, hand sanitiser and visitor checks. As I've said, our work health safety management systems need to be robust, adaptive and responsive to change. The systems must be integrated into organisational management systems and embedded into organisational culture. Another plug, if I might. Comcare is hosting a webinar on Wednesday, the 28th of October on COVID-19 safety systems and safety culture. This session will review the key elements of a safety system and discuss what contributes to making some systems more effective than others.

In order to implement safety culture and adaptive systems into the workplace, you must have committed leadership from all levels across the organisation. You don't have to be a manager to be a leader when it comes to safety. Everyone has a role and everyone should be involved. When we're talking about COVID, everyone can lead by example. We can all take personal and professional accountability for the safety of the workplace. This can be shown by practising physical distancing and ensuring good personal hygiene for instance. When everyone plays their part, our response to the COVID risk will be more effective. It's critical that as the pandemic situation continues to evolve, that we have workplace health and safety at the forefront of their mind. This applies to both the physical and mental health of our organisations and our people. We know that distress is high in the community at present and this will have an impact on our people indirectly or directly. It's important that we check in regularly, particularly with our vulnerable staff and colleagues.

As leaders, we need to be conscious to consciously create space and time for our teams and for our people to safely collaborate and to connect. We know from emerging research that some workers will be fearful and apprehensive about returning to the workplace. On the flip side, we will continue to see some organisations work more flexibly. What is critical at this time is that we strike the right balance. We need to ensure that we balance productivity with positive job satisfaction. And this will rely on us as leaders connecting in regularly with our people and building new rhythms and routines into our workplaces.

So during this time of accelerated change, it's also important to call out the duty to consult. It's a legal requirement for workplaces to consult with workers and HSRs. There are also many other benefits of consultation. Workers may see or know things that can be overlooked during the risk assessment stage. They also understand and complete the work required. So we'll have a valuable view on the effectiveness of any controls. And when workers are consulted in a part of the solution, they are more likely to be committed to the actions and the outcomes.

Meredith and I have both spoken about risk assessment and risk management today. While it's important that we consult during the identify, assess and implement control stages, it's just as important that we consult with workers as we evaluate the effectiveness of these controls, especially as circumstances change. So what are the practical ways consultation could take place in this current environment? Some examples can include conducting staff surveys as a way for workers to provide feedback on policies, procedures, controls. And using the technology available such as MS Teams and Zoom and Skype and even emails so you can communicate effectively with your workforce. These methods of communicating and consulting can be done when our staff are working remotely. And it can be a great example of leadership commitment and a focus on safety culture.

As we continue to progress through this time of uncertainty and accelerated change, we need to support our workers and their mental health. The flow on effect of this pandemic on mental health and wellbeing is obvious. It's important for supervisors, for managers and even just teammates to look out for each other and to be conscious of changes in workers' moods, and on their performance. These may be signs that someone isn't doing so well. If you're interested in learning more about the impacts of COVID-19 on the nature of work, mental health and wellbeing, please join us on Wednesday, the 14th of October for a webinar with our partners Beyond Blue and the Future of Work Institute. This is my last plug for today, I promise. We know that we need to practically support our own mental health and that of our workers. And there are many support services available.

For employees, your organisations, employee assistance program, or EAP may be a good place to start. Beyond Blue has a Coronavirus, mental wellbeing support service available. And I recommend that you check out their website for other resources. Another resource you might like to access is the Black Dog Institute. On their website, you'll find tools and resources to help with dealing with the stress and anxiety surrounding COVID. Meredith also mentioned earlier Safe Work Australia's new information sheet about preventing psychological injury at work during COVID. And for examples of best practice, they have some mental health case studies available on their website.

So thank you for taking the time out today to join us for our first webinar as part of Safe Work Month. We all know that work health and safety is not just a one month thing, but Safe Work Month gives us the chance to increase our focus and attention on our WHS roles and responsibilities. Safe Work Month provides a great opportunity to raise awareness, have conversations and take action to improve work health and safety, not just about COVID, but across all dimensions of work health and safety. So what are you planning to do to accelerate positive change in work health and safety this month?

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Thanks, Justin, for such an interesting and informative presentation there. So as I mentioned earlier, we've now got some time to discuss some of the questions that have been put forward by our audience. And in the question and comment feed we've put through some thumb polls and some of the responses to those are quite interesting. So one of the questions that was asked was around where are you watching this presentation from? And we've got around 60% of the audience who responded to the question said that they were watching from home and about 40% said that they are watching from the physical workplace. So the first question I'll push towards Meredith and few questions coming in around the fact that many workplaces have had to significantly change their work in response to COVID-19. How is it that employers can provide a safe working environment for their workers?

Meredith Bryant:

Thanks, Andrew, for the question. And of course as Justin and I have both mentioned COVID-19 has presented those new work health and safety risks in the workplace. And these risks are going to be with us for some time. So to keep people safe and healthy at work, businesses, workers and other duty holders need to work together to promote those safe work practices. So the key thing is that they need to in consultation with workers and their representatives look at the way they work, they need to identify and understand and assess those risks arising from COVID-19 and implement control measures to address those risks and then review them regularly. That's really important.

So maintaining physical distancing, regular cleaning, and ensure people are staying at home when they're unwell and practising good hygiene in the workplace are critical ingredients to ensuring that workplace safety. They will take you a long way to keeping that workplace safe. But the Safe Work Australia website provides extensive work health and safety guidance on COVID-19 to help employers provide a safe working environment for the workers. So just dive in and start having an explorer around and you'll find heaps of information that can assist.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Great. Thanks Meredith. So now one for Justin, there've been quite a few questions come through related to how our work health safety regulators such as Comcare adapting their approach in its COVID-19 environment.

Justin Napier:

Thanks for the question, Andrew. So generally fairly well, it's obviously been a different environment we've been operating in. We've had to risk assess all of our business activities and depending on the different restrictions that are in place wherever we are in Australia, we've needed to then undertake the work that we do in different forms. We've continued to respond to serious incidents in any fatalities having undertaken that risk assessment across Australia. But that has meant some reductions in some of the proactive work that we've been doing initially, although the impact of that has differed depending on where we are, which team we're talking about and where they happen to be located in Australia. And that reflects the relevant public health restrictions that might be in place.

We've also used technology to assist us, to meet with PCBUs. We've had a number of meetings via Microsoft Teams, for instance. We started to conduct virtual audits and we've been running consultation sessions using technology such as this. But there's further work to do we're in the business of now contacting and reaching out to every PCBU in our jurisdiction. And we're ensuring that we have an ongoing risk assessment and we're adjusting that as circumstances change. So as I said early on we're pretty well not in the field as much, but in certain parts of Australia, we're back to what's close to BAU work. And we continue to monitor advice from the Commonwealth state and territories and take into consideration public health directions and orders and any local restrictions or local outbreaks that apply. And as I said in my presentation, we're trying to anticipate the needs of the jurisdiction and develop content and material that supports you during this time.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Thanks, Justin. So back to Meredith, another one for you. A few questions coming through around any of the positive work health and safety practices that have been highlighted or implemented that you've become aware of during the COVID-19 pandemic that you think maybe you should stick around.

Meredith Bryant:

Yeah, Andrew. I think it's a really important point. The pandemic has shown the importance of work health and safety and the significant role it plays in protecting workers as well as our communities more broadly. So there's that heightened awareness. And we've seen wide places demonstrate a strong commitment to keeping people safe and healthy at work. And that's something we definitely want to see continue. So thousands upon thousands of Australian workplaces have reviewed their work practices, assessed health and work health and safety risks and put in place measures that are going to keep people safe. And many measures like physical distancing and enhanced cleaning and hygiene should become the new normal for some time to come. And it's been especially beneficial, I guess, to see the impacts on not only reducing the risk of COVID-19, but also things like cold and flu and the positive benefits that can have in a workplace. So it's something we're focusing on during National Safe Work Month. It's important that we keep work health and safety a priority, build on that momentum through COVID-19 and beyond.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Okay, great. Thank you. So interesting also just looking back at some of the thumb polls there. There's a split between one of the questions that was asked in one of the thumb polls was around where people prefer working from now. And there is a bit of a split between people who prefer working from home and people who prefer working from the office. But interestingly, by far the most popular response that we got come through was people who prefer a mixture of both, working from home and the office. So it'd be interesting to see how that evolves into the future and whether that becomes part of a new normal. Okay. So the next question I've got, that's come through there is I don't know if Justin, which is, with so many different opinions about the risk controls, the risks and the controls that are related to working during the pandemic. Are there any best practice policies or guidance on how to approach or manage a company response?

Justin Napier:

Yeah, sure. Thanks, Andrew. I said and I think Meredith said it too. There's not a one size fits all approach. So you do need to tailor your response to specific circumstances of your organisation. I'd say as a starting point you obviously need to be conscious of any Commonwealth public health advice that's in place and any relevant state health or state government or territory government circumstances that are in place, any restrictions that need to be in place.

So in essence, you've sort of got to unpeel the onion, starting those layers, and then like Meredith and I have said in the presentation today, you need then to undertake an appropriate risk assessment and then consider the risk controls that you're putting in place. When considering one of the questions that I think pertinent at the moment is that return to the workplace piece and you'll need to look at the circumstances of your workplace, the capacity of the building, for instance, any vulnerable workers that you might have, any of these circumstances that may limit your ability to get people fully back into the workplace, you'll need to consider the psychosocial risks and the transitions that are required there.

So building or location of work, the facilities that you have in the workplace, the layout of the building, and it might not be, I'm talking about a physical building, but you might have workers in the field. So these circumstances need to be considered as well. Physical distancing is a requirement still under the public health orders. So you'll need to be conscious of that and consider how that would work within your workplace. And where it's not possible to manage that, then that brings into play the flexible working arrangements. So we need to consult, as I've said, you need to have that flexibility of approach your safety system needs to be adaptable. You need to regularly review it. It's not a set and forget. You do need to be constantly monitoring risk and emerging risk and responding and consulting. And these are all principles, as I said, in my presentation that come from the work health safety yet. So I think that's a good place to start. So it's about public health orders, state and territory advice, and then the principals in the WHS Act.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Great. Thanks Justin. So one back over to you Meredith, we've had a question come in asking around are there extra duties or obligations under the worker safety laws directly related to COVID?

Meredith Bryant:

Yeah. Thanks Andrew. So yeah, to reinforce, I guess the message Justin and I tried to convey today, the model laws already require employees to protect the health, safety, and welfare of not only their workers, but themselves, other staff, contractors, volunteers, and others in the workplace, like those clients, customers and visitors. And the existing duty applies to the new risks arising from COVID-19 just as equally. So it includes things like providing and maintaining a work environment that's without risk to health and safety. So for example, an environment that doesn't put work is at risk of contracting the virus and providing those adequate facilities for workers to do their job. So to meet the duties that already exist during these times, if they've got to do things like what Justin said, keep up to date on the COVID-19 situation, through authoritative sources and be aware of the hazards and risks affecting the workplace from COVID-19.

So look to the Australian Government websites, reliable information through the Australian Government Department of Health, our local work health and safety regulators, about the best ways to eliminate or minimise the risk of exposure. And then regularly consulting with workers and their health and safety representatives to communicate and discuss those risks. You've got to ensure that you've got processes and procedures in place to manage work health and safety risks arising from COVID-19 and that they're being followed. So you've got the risk assessment, having procedures in place for consulting with workers and people knowing what those are developing or updating your policies. For example, policies for working from home arrangements, which include information on how to set up a safe home workspace, for example. And then you've got to ensure that the workplace is resourced properly to manage the work health and safety risks. This is a requirement under the law.

So whether workplace facilities can keep workers safe, keeping bathrooms and common areas clean and ensuring example, hand sanitiser around the workplace, how do we ensure the workplace operates effectively while also maintaining physical distancing requirements, any knock-on effects that that may have, that you also need to consider, how to approach cleaning throughout the day, like increasing those high touch point routine cleaning at the end of the day. And whether there needs to be any changes to the workplace or equipment to maintain safety. So removing furniture to provide more space or putting up barriers between staff and customers. So again the Safe Work Australia website has useful information on these, and there's actually a specific section on both employer duties and worker duties and rights under those individual sections if people want more.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Thanks Meredith. So Safe Work Australia's website is a solid source of truth and a go-to for links to other trusted sources or partners such as state and territory regulators, including Comcare. So it looks like we've got time for a few more questions for each of you. So I'll throw another one over to Justin. There's been lots of questions that have come through related to working from home. And one of the most common themes are around as the COVID-19 crisis shifts from shorter to the longer term, what are your thoughts on managing the longer term risks of those people who are working remotely?

Justin Napier:

Yeah, thanks, Andrew. Again, the themes that we've been talking about are important here. So I would say you do need to engage with your workforce. You need to consult with them and you need to ensure there are ongoing connections with the workforce site. I'm aware of a whole range of techniques I suppose, using technology that people have put in place to ensure that their teams have remained connected during this time. They check in with each other and I'm aware that some CEOs have been doing ring arounds of managers also running virtual sessions. I know I'm in Victoria, so we do a sort of Victorian session where we try to connect and share our problems and talk about our frustrations and circumstances. And I think that's been a really sort of positive way for those people who've been at home for some months now to connect with the workforce.

That message from earlier still stands. So not a one size fits all. You do need to be constantly checking in and reviewing. There are, as I mentioned in my presentation, some supports that are available, there's a lot of material available from Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute, Safe Work Australia and other websites that provide support. And we'll provide you with some sort of useful insights in how you go about building that sort of resilience and checking in and ensuring that your people are in a good space during this time. There's a seminar coming up that Comcare is running as part of Work Safe Month. So there are a whole range of supports and tools. The Safe Work Australia has got a lot of material as well. So yeah, just check in, talk to people, ensure that you've got that ongoing connection and that engagement it's really important. It sends a very clear and strong message to I think the people who are working from home that the organisation is committed to their health and safety, the organisation cares.

And I've heard sort of feedback from some of our people during this time that they feel more connected to the workplace, even though they haven't been in the workplace during this time. And I think it is possible to achieve some of those positive cultural impacts, not to say there are others of course they are suffering. So we do need to regularly check in with them and provide them with whatever support that we can. Thanks, Andrew.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

No worries. Thanks Justin. So I've got one for you Meredith and actually, we've had a few come through around more information, but I think we've covered where people can go for more information pretty well through Comcare's website and Safe Work Australia's website. Another one of the thumb poll questions that we put forward was around the mental health impact. When we got results were kind of mixed. Well, we've had people say that there'd been a positive impact for some not so many. More people said there was a negative impact, but a lot of people said they were both positive and negative impacts. And you'd mentioned risks to mental health. Where can we go for more information about managing work or safety risks related to mental health self?

Meredith Bryant:

Thanks, Andrew. Yeah, it's definitely a really important one. And it's important to remember again, I can't emphasise it enough that the work health and safety laws don't just cover physical health and safety, they cover those psychological risks as well. So for many people that COVID-19 pandemic has introduced and increased a range of psychosocial hazards in the workplace, as well as offering those benefits. It can include things like it concerned about exposure to the virus at work, increased work demand, or exposure to work-related violence or aggression, a whole span of things. And business owners or operators must do what's reasonably practicable to eliminate or reduce psychological risk to workers and others at the workplace. So you can manage those risks in the same way you approach physical risks using that risk management approach. So eliminating or minimising physical risk, it's important to remember will also help to manage those psychosocial risks as well.

But Safe Work Australia's developed guidance on COVID-19 and mental health not only for employees, but for small businesses and workers and that's available through our web portal. And the guidance includes links to other mental health and wellbeing support and resources. Some of those key ones that Justin mentioned as well including resources from work health and safety authorities and Comcare in particular has information that we've linked there. So look for those other support services, such as the Department of Health, Head to Health website and Beyond Blue's Coronavirus mental health and wellbeing support services as well. So if you just navigate to our website, go to the mental health tab you'll be able to find a whole one stop shop of all those links there as well. So it's a good one to check out.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

Right. Thanks, Meredith. So I've got time for just a couple more questions and I'll throw the last couple to you Justin to wrap up. So first one, well, I had quite a few questions around wearing masks in the office and the 1.5 meters around desks. And another question around keeping up to date with changes as they take place. So I'll sort of double barrel you a little bit there Justin, with both of those. So one is sort of keeping up to date with the requirements but also it's this, how long are we going to have to wear masks inside the office and at our own desk, which is 1.5 meters from others?

Justin Napier:

Get my self off of me, the phrase of 2020. Thanks Andrew. Who knows in relation to face masks circumstances, public health guidance will reflect what's going on in communities. So I couldn't offer a view as to how long that will be the case. I said earlier that you just do need to be regularly monitoring the public health advice and the guidance that applies that's the starting point. And my view is that the WHS duties fall out of that. So public health guidance is absolutely critical. We're seeing circumstances change around the country at different stages. So you do need to be monitoring that. I should do a shout out to my colleagues in the state and territory, WHS regulators. So if you're not in the Comcare jurisdiction, there will be regulators in each of those states that will have information available. And no doubt you'll be able to connect in with them and find out what's relevant in your particular part of the world.

If you are a national employer, you do need to be responsive to the different circumstances as they apply that message again about risk assessment, risk control and consultation is important there. Yeah, it's public health advice as it currently stands about the 1.5 meter physical separation, physical distancing. So that needs to be factored into any decisions that you make in terms of returning staff to the workforce. And you need to consider things like the capacity of your building to do so. And I think Meredith mentioned lift access in public areas and kitchens and the like. So you will need to factor in the ability of the physical environment to allow you to meet those public health orders. So there's no simple answer to that question, Andrew. Sorry.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

No worries. Thanks for taking one of the tough ones and that is all of our time for questions today. On behalf of Comcare and the audience I'd really like to thank both Meredith and Justin for your presentations and taking a ride on the hot seats to answer some of the audience's questions. Justin referred earlier to this event being just one of a part of what Comcare is doing during Safe Work Month. Each week in October, we've got dedicated theme with information and resources that are available from the website. And there's a number of other events that are coming up that you'll find on Comcare's social media pages and LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as of course on our website. So be sure to register for some of the upcoming webinars that Justin mentioned. On Wednesday, the 14th of October, Comcare is hosting a webinar, we'll be exploring the impacts of COVID-19 on the nature of work and mental health and wellbeing.

Master of Ceremonies (MC):

And we'll be hosting that in partnership with Beyond Blue, we'll identify some of the themes arising in the community from the Coronavirus, mental health, mental wellbeing support service, and some of the challenges that people are facing during this time. We'll also be joined by the Future of Work Institute, they'll be discussing some of the challenges and opportunities around the changes to work now and into the future and how investing in good work design may pay dividends that may well shape the future that we all would prefer to work in. You'll of course, need to register for the events and the links can be found on our website. Also in October we've also got another webinar, titled, Safety Systems Safety Culture on COVID-19 and that's on Wednesday, the 28th of October. In this session we'll be reviewing the key elements of safety systems and discussing what contributes to making some more effective than others. Like our other webinars you'll need to register for that. And the link is in the Q&A section as well if you're looking for it.

Finally, we'll be sending out a super quick survey to everyone who's registered, and we'd really love to hear your feedback. It will help to make and improve our sessions in the future.

So that's all we've got today. Once again, thanks to our speakers, Meredith and Justin, to all the production team behind the scenes, thank you for taking the time to be part of this Safe Work Month event. Stay safe, stay well and see you soon.

Page last reviewed: 12 October 2020

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Date printed 13 Apr 2024