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What should you be doing now to mitigate the health and safety risks posed by a potential Coronavirus outbreak in New Zealand?

Contributed by:

Olivia Welsh
Special Counsel

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Olivia Welsh

In the wake of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring the Coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, China going into lockdown, and the New Zealand Ministry of Health advising against travel plans in the near future, New Zealand business owners are starting to wonder about their obligations towards their staff and customers.

Whilst there are still no confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health has assessed the likelihood of importing a case to be high. Therefore, it is better to take a proactive approach to the issue and start preparing now.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA), businesses must ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the health and safety of workers and others who might be effected by work carried out by the business. This requires businesses to take appropriate steps to eliminate or otherwise minimise health and safety risks in the workplace, including health related risks like that posed by infectious diseases. There are several precautionary steps that businesses can take to minimise the risk of spreading infectious diseases.

These include:

  • keeping workplaces clean;
  • ensuring air conditioning units are also cleaned;
  • ensuring your workplace has good ventilation;
  • encouraging workers to work from home (to avoid transmission on public transport) if that is an option;
  • reiterating common hygiene protocols in the workplace;
  • monitoring worker health and conditions at the workplace;
  • engaging with workers about the symptoms of Coronavirus and what to do if they feel unwell; and
  • in line with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) recommendations, advising workers not to travel to any parts of mainland China.

Additional steps should be taken if there are already employees in the workplace that could be considered to be at higher risk. These would be employees who are already displaying symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing and pneumonia; employees who have travelled to China recently; employees who have been exposed to others who have travelled to China recently; and employees who have been exposed to any other person displaying the symptoms listed earlier.

Employers should:

  • ensure that if any employees have been travelling through China they should not be at the workplace for 14 days (the Ministry of Health has indicated the incubation period to be 14 days);
  • ensure employees do not feel discouraged to take leave when they are feeling unwell or if they fall in the above category, just because their sick leave entitlements have run out; and
  • consider an emergency leave policy and have a discussion with any employees considered to be at a high risk about how time away will be classified.

Employers should be proactive about meeting their obligations under the HSWA by providing and maintaining healthy and safe workplaces for all workers and anyone else visiting those workplaces. It is important to remember that the HSWA provides the ability for any worker to refuse to carry out work if they believe the work will expose them to a serious risk to their health and safety.

If you or your employees are displaying any of the above mentioned symptoms, the Ministry of Health recommends you contact Healthline on 0800 611 116.

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