News & Thinking
COVID-19: What do essential services need to do to manage health and safety?
The pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus has seen New Zealand – and the world – plunged into uncharted territory. On 26 March 2020, the Government took the unprecedented step of raising New Zealand’s COVID-19 alert to level four, resulting in a mandatory lockdown for all Government agencies, private businesses, not-for-profit organisations, community and sporting groups, and individuals. The only exception is for organisations and people involved in delivering essential services.
Unsurprisingly, the rapidly changing situation has left many of these essential services with concerns about what they need to do to properly manage the health and safety of their people (and those they come into contact with) during the lockdown and beyond.
My organisation is an essential service – what do I need to do?
When it comes to managing health and safety, the simple answer is it’s business as usual for most risks. WorkSafe New Zealand (WorkSafe) has been very clear that the pandemic is not an excuse for businesses to drop their standards or become blasé about risk.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has, of course, created new risks that organisations need to manage. The changing ways we are now expected to work and issues such as supply chain shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) caused by the pandemic are themselves creating new risks too.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) has always required organisations to identify risks to health as well as safety, and to act to eliminate or otherwise minimise these risks so far as is reasonably practicable. Nothing has changed for essential services, and expectations in relation to the risks associated with COVID-19 are no different.
So what are some practical things you can do?
- Keep up to date and informed – make sure your organisation is following the latest Ministry of Health advice about preventing the spread of COVID-19 and steps for ensuring good hygiene practices in the workplace. The website www.covid19.govt.nz is a useful starting point, but if necessary you should search more widely for information that might assist your specific sector or type of activity. Past cases have made it clear that when there is no appropriate guidance material in New Zealand organisations are expected to look overseas for assistance and recommendations.
- Stop, think, assess, and manage – consider the other health and safety risks brought about by the COVID-19 outbreak (e.g. mental health impacts like stress and fatigue) and put in place means to manage them.
- Make your people the priority – the primary focus of every organisation should be the safety and health of its people and of others impacted by its work. It is accordingly important to regularly engage with your people and ensure any support they need is available. This can be more than a legal issue, as poor planning can lead to reputational damage – the delays in getting masks, testing equipment and other items to front line health workers being a good example of current health driven criticism affecting more than just the the public sector.
- Consult, cooperate, and coordinate – if you are an essential service, you need to engage with other essential services you work with and explore options to work together when managing the risks posed by COVID-19. For example, it may be useful to work with others to overcome PPE shortages or minimise other logistics or distribution issues.
What is WorkSafe doing and what does it expect of essential service businesses?
WorkSafe is itself classified as an essential service, and it will continue to operate during the current lockdown period.
WorkSafe has helpfully provided some guidance on its website about what organisations can expect while New Zealand remains at alert level four. See the guidance here.
WorkSafe will be:
- prioritising support for the Government response to COVID-19;
- clearing the way for essential services to carry out their operations; and
- providing information and support to those in need.
WorkSafe has reduced call centre capacity to deal with incident notifications at present, so has asked that only events involving a serious risk of harm or where someone has been seriously injured, become seriously ill, or died, should be notified using WorkSafe’s 0800 number. All other notifications can be made through www.worksafe.govt.nz.
Investigations into workplace accidents are also going to be conducted differently for the next month, with WorkSafe significantly reducing face-to-face interactions and physical attendance at incident scenes. General workplace inspections and other routine face-to-face interventions will cease entirely unless WorkSafe has to deal with an immediate risk of harm.
For essential service providers, WorkSafe expects you to continue to look after your people, to take a pragmatic approach to dealing with the current situation, and to act in good faith at all times. These seem fair to us.
The situation created by COVID-19 and the current level four requirements mean the way essential services manage health and safety risks need to be flexible as the usual risk mitigation approaches may not be possible without compromising the delivery of those essential services. This means WorkSafe will be pragmatic and lenient about things like:
- non-compliance with specific regulations as a direct result of the country being at level four;
- the expiry of equipment certificates and audit periods as part of required third party audit or approval schemes;
- the inability to comply with inspection and equipment certification requirements imposed by regulations like the the Health and Safety in Employment (Pressure Equipment, Cranes and Passenger Ropeways) Regulations 1999, due to level four status; and
- not being able to renew licences like a Certified Handler Compliance Certificate or a Controlled Substance Licence.
The key focus for WorkSafe is ensuring that essential services continue to be delivered as safely as possible. As long as essential services take a responsible approach to health and safety and do the best they can for their people, it is unlikely WorkSafe will complain, even if specific requirements aren’t met. The important question for organisations to ask is “If there isn’t a perfect solution, what is the most we can reasonably do right now?”
Organisations who use COVID-19 as an excuse to do nothing, putting their workers and the public at risk, can and should expect WorkSafe to hold them to account.
If your organisation is an essential service and you have concerns or questions about your health and safety responsibilities during the current lockdown, please contact our team of health and safety experts as they are ready (working safely at home) to help you.