Member bulletin – COVID cases in the community

COVID-19 cases in the community

Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) has partnered with Corrs Chambers Westgarth to provide this COVID-19 update for our members.

Why is this important?

As cases rise across the country, COVID-19 continues to present a risk to public health. Notwithstanding the increase in cases, COVID-19 related government health measures are being wound back and relaxed. As such, increasingly
it is the responsibility of employers to manage COVID-19 as a work health and safety matter within the workplace.
In response to the case numbers, some employers (including Westpac and Telstra) have recently announced that their staff will work remotely until at least the end of August 2022. Other employers have maintained existing hybrid working arrangements.

In this update we provide general guidance to our members about what, if any, action they ought to be taking now in response to the current environment.

Duty to provide a safe working environment

Under work health and safety (WHS) laws, universities have a duty to provide and maintain a work environment without risks to health and safety by eliminating or otherwise minimising those risks, so far as is reasonably practicable. This is an obligation common across the jurisdictions. The duty is owed to staff, students and other people working and visiting campus (for whatever periods of time) as well as other people who might be affected by the work and undertaking of a university.

Managing risks is an ongoing process

The management of risks associated with COVID-19 has been, and will continue to be, informed by risk assessments, used to identify risks and the likelihood of it occurring, and ways to eliminate or minimise them using appropriate controls. Each university’s risk assessment will be specific to their campus – the nature of risks, and associated control measures, will differ from campus-to-campus. Universities are not required to have the same control measures in place.

Importantly, control measures must be revised (as required) to ensure universities continue to comply with their duty as the environment changes.

What can universities do?

In light of the case numbers, AHEIA strongly recommends that universities review their COVID-19 risk assessment(s) to make sure they are current, taking account of the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
When universities are identifying or assessing hazards or risks, or determining ways to eliminate or otherwise
minimise risks (which can include the introduction, change or removal of control measures), they need to consider consultation obligations which may be triggered under WHS laws, other consultation procedures in place and any applicable industrial instruments.

Other considerations for universities include:

  • ensuring that any changes to control measures are reflected in associated documentation, including any ‘COVIDSafe Plan’ (however described);
  • the effectiveness of communications in relation to control measures and whether changes to the frequency or type of communications are needed;
  • the impact of an influenza season, the cases for which have been low since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic however are now clearly on the rise. For example, universities may want to consider confirming that any requests to not attend campus(es) when unwell extends to experiencing both COVID-19 and influenza symptoms; and
  • continuing support for flexible work and study arrangements, including remote work.

The national policy body for work health and safety, Safe Work Australia, has acknowledged the increase in cases and tools remain available on its website for managing the risks associated with COVID-19, including guidance on risk assessments.

Download the COVID-19 Member bulletin