Post COVID-19 WHS obligations in the transport industry
The emergence of COVID-19 created many unexpected questions for business owners and managers. To help you and your business understand your obligations, now and in the future we’ve recruited Gillian Bristow, Legal Practitioner Director of Bristow Legal, to provide you with useful information on;
- Duties owed to employees
- How to comply with your duties
- Specific measures you could introduce
- Keeping those working from home safe
What duties do I owe to my employees during a national or international crisis?
All Australian states and territories have legislation that sets out your WHS obligations as an employer. In general terms, you are required to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of your workplace and your employees/contractors.
As a transport operator you will recognise that this terminology is very similar to the obligations that are owed under Chain of Responsibility laws.
How do I go about complying with my duties under WHS law?
As an employer, you must work out the risks that your employees/contractors are exposed to and find ways of eliminating or minimising those risks. The road transport industry was particularly at risk during the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic because drivers and others in warehouses couldn’t isolate themselves at home and were travelling between various sites and interacting with others in the course of deliveries and when purchasing fuel.
It is important that you have a plan to respond to issues associated with this type of business disruption. Any plan should involve, at a minimum:
- consulting with your workforce;
- making sure employees have been given clear guidelines about what to do if they are ordered to isolate, or if they are feeling unwell;
- reviewing and updating procedures with respect to hygiene, cleaning and social distancing; and
- continually monitoring new sources and reviewing directions and guidance issued by public health authorities and other government bodies.
Consultation is especially important, both legally and practically. Communicating with your team will help you understand how best to minimise risks and to support and assist them – you can read more about that here. It is also vital that your team know both who to call and when to call if they have issues. WHS extends beyond keeping your employees virus free, it also includes their mental wellbeing during what is a stressful time for everyone. You can read more about mental health here.
What are some of the specific measures my transport business could introduce to minimise risks?
Some of the recommendations include:
- limit physical interactions between workers, suppliers, customers and others;
- prohibit drivers travelling with passengers; and
- use electronic paperwork where possible and use alternative methods to a signature (such as photos with time stamps) as proof of delivery.
At your depot/warehouse
- postpone non-essential work, gatherings and training;
- eliminate or limit visitor attendance;
- direct visiting vehicle drivers to stay in their vehicles;
- reduce the number of workers using common areas at a given time (e.g. by staggering meal breaks and start times);
- make sure furniture in any common areas is appropriately spaced;
- use electronic methods such as mobile phone or radio to communicate;
- increase the frequency and extent of cleaning services; and
- place signage about physical distancing around the workplace.
On the road and at customer premises
- monitor the availability of facilities and plan routes to take best advantage of the facilities that are available; and
- ensure workers have hand sanitiser and other necessary PPE available.
I have employees working from home because of the various government directives. Should I be concerned about their health and safety?
The pandemic does not absolve your WHS responsibilities for employees who are working from home.
To meet your obligations to your ‘at home workforce’ you should consider the risks associated with their work and how you can minimise those risks. The sorts of issues you could consider include:
- providing guidance on how to set up an appropriate workstation;
- making sure each employee is in an appropriate environment – consider heat, cold, lighting, electrical safety and security. Perhaps you could use a checklist that asks your employees to consider all these issues and report back to you. An example checklist published by Worksafe Queensland is available here;
- ensuring that you communicate effectively such as by keeping in regular contact by phone, email, video linkup or Skype; and
- having a nominated point of contact if employees have any concerns arising from their working from home arrangements or any other aspect of the current pandemic.
How can I contact for more detailed help?
Each state health authority and regulator publishes online resources that are available to help you manage health risks in your workplace. The relevant website links and contact details are in the table below.
New South Wales
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland
Australian Capital Territory
Gillian has provided advice to the road transport industry for more than 25 years. She regularly presents to industry conferences and seminars, and writes a column for the magazine ‘Power Torque’. Gillian has previously worked with NTI to provide guidance material on chain of responsibility obligations and with the Australian Trucking Association to prepare a checklist for reviewing transport contracts.
Prepared 3 April 2020. Update 19 April 2021. Please note that this publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should consider obtaining advice that is specific to your circumstances and should not rely upon this publication as legal advice.
- You are required by law to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of your workplace and your employees/contractors
- As an employer you must work out the risks that your employees/contractors are exposed to and find ways of eliminating or minimising those risks
- If you're unsure what new risks are posed due to COVID-19 there are many resources available to help