Addressing health and safety concerns

Guidance for workers and businesses operating during the different COVID-19 Alert Level restrictions.

Last updated: 18 August 2020

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Organising work so that it is healthy and safe

All businesses and organisations need to review how they work, in order to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The COVID-19 Public Health Response (Alert Levels 3 and 2) Order 2020 sets the public health requirements for managing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. It identifies the controls businesses need to use to minimise the risk for workers, volunteers, and other people affected by the work, such as customers.

The controls required will depend on the Alert Level in the geographical area a workplace is subject to.

All businesses and organisations must meet the Order’s general requirements for these controls. There are also specific requirements for particular types of work. If there’s a difference between the specific requirements and the general requirements applying to your work, you must comply with the specific requirements.

More information about the Order’s requirements is available on the Worksafe website.

Alert Level 3 Public Health Requirements – what you need to know - WorkSafe (external link)

Alert Level 2: Public Health Requirements – What you need to know - WorkSafe (external link)

Businesses should also follow the Ministry of Health’s public health guidance on good hygiene and cleaning practices.

COVID-19: Cleaning for businesses and education centres - Ministry of Health (external link)

The requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) continue to apply, to COVID-19 related and usual workplace risks.

WorkSafe New Zealand has developed guidance about operating safely at Alert Levels 2 and 3.

Alert Level 2: Public Health Requirements – What you need to know - WorkSafe (external link)

Ensuring all workers are able to keep themselves safe from exposure to COVID-19

All workers (including volunteers) need to have access to the right information about keeping themselves well. This will mean they’re able to maintain good work and hygiene practices. It can’t be assumed that workers will just know how to do this. They need to have, or know where to get, official information.

Health and wellbeing - COVID-19 website (external link)

Businesses also need to provide workers with guidance on keeping well while travelling between home and work, particularly between the different alert level zones. Some businesses may choose to make travel arrangements to support their workers to stay well.

Guidance: Transport and travel by alert level - Ministry of Transport (external link)

Ensuring work processes and risk controls are effective

Businesses and workers need to be prepared to learn and adapt to find the best ways to maintain physical distancing, and good hygiene and cleaning practices.

This will involve engaging with workers to learn what’s working, what’s not, and how things could be improved. Businesses need good processes in place to encourage workers to engage in work health and safety matters. The Health and Safety at Work Act requires businesses to ask their workers and health and safety representatives about health and safety issues– not just assume that they will speak up.

Many businesses and organisations will already have effective incident reporting approaches that can be adapted to assess how well their COVID-19 controls are working. If a business does not have an incident reporting approach, or its usual practices are not right for the circumstances, then it will to need a way to find out if COVID-19 controls are working.

No worker who is sick with COVID-19, or who is required to self-isolate, may go to work in any circumstances

Employers should not require or knowingly allow workers to come to a workplace when they are sick with COVID-19 or required to self-isolate (as a suspected case, a close contact, or on return from overseas) under public health guidelines for COVID-19. If they do, they are likely to be in breach of their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA).

If a worker tries to come to work in these circumstances they are also likely to be in breach of the HSWA.

For workers who are at higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19 (per the Ministry of Health’s advice), they may be able to work if the worker and employer agree that their risks can be appropriately managed. Working from home is the best model here, wherever it is practicable. With agreement and good faith and all appropriate measures in place, including around how the worker travels to and from work, some of these workers may still be able to work safely outside of their home.

Raising and addressing health and safety concerns

If a worker believes there are reasons why it is not safe for them to be at work, or if they have concerns that they could be putting a member of their ‘bubble’ at risk, they should let their manager know. In some situations, it won’t be possible to eliminate all the risks associated with COVID-19 and working from home may not be possible. A business that is meeting the requirements of the HSWA will have channels to engage with workers and get workers’ views on how best to manage risks for workers.

If the risks arise because of the worker’s own personal circumstances, they should talk to their manager and work together to see if there are ways that could eliminate or minimise the risk of contracting the virus at work (for example, there could be the option for the worker to do less customer facing work).

If the employer agrees there is a reasonable belief or concern about COVID-19, they must do what is reasonably practicable to address the risk.

If the risk affects a large group of workers, address this in good faith with the wider workforce. If the risk affects individuals or a small group of workers, address this in good faith with those workers.

Ways to address the risk of COVID-19 transmission for either type of issue could include:

  • implementing controls such as isolating workers, putting engineering controls in place, good hygiene practices, physical distancing, or PPE as appropriate. The business should explain to their workers why the activity is needed, and explain exactly what the controls can and can’t do.
  • asking individual workers to work from home, or carry out reasonable alternative duties while the risk is addressed, and paying them normally,
  • agreeing when paid or unpaid leave will be used.

If an employer does not address an employee’s reasonable belief or concern about COVID-19, then they should not require any worker to come to a workplace or the employer will likely be in breach of the HSWA.

Find more information about how to manage the risks of COVID-19:

COVID-19: Health and safety at work - WorkSafe (external link)

Steps to escalate health and safety concerns

If a worker does not consider that the work they have been asked to do is permitted under the current Alert Level, or if they believe that going to the workplace would expose them or other people (including vulnerable people in their bubble) to a serious risk to health or safety, then the business and worker should work together try to resolve the matter.

As a first port of call, the worker should talk to their manager and make sure the manager understands why the worker considers the work is not permitted, or what the risks are from the worker’s point of view. A worker may also wish to contact their health and safety representative (if they have one) or union representative, if applicable, who may be able to help the parties come to an agreement about how work can continue safely.

Employers and workers should be guided by latest public health guidance from the Ministry of Health and Worksafe on COVID-19.

When the business takes appropriate steps to follow workplace health and safety guidelines

Where public health guidance is being followed, work is permitted at the workplace under the current Alert Level, and all health and safety duties under HSWA are met, then workers will need to go to the workplace, unless an alternative arrangement is agreed with the employer.

Alternative arrangements could include paid special leave. The obligation of good faith applies to discussions around alternative arrangements. If an alternative arrangement is not agreed and an employer gives the worker a reasonable instruction to come to the workplace, then the worker will need to follow that instruction. If the worker does not come to work without an agreed alternative arrangement, then the worker will need to take unpaid leave. 

If the employer agrees there is a reasonable belief or concern about COVID-19, they must do what is reasonably practicable to address the risk 

If an employer does not address an employee’s reasonable belief or concern about COVID-19, then they should not require any worker to come to a workplace or the employer will likely be in breach of the HSWA.

If public health guidance and health and safety duties are not being met and/or the risks are not being managed so far as is reasonably practical then the worker could:

There may be cases where one or more workers feel their only option is to stop working.

Under health and safety law, a worker or workers may stop working if they believe the work would expose them or any other person to a serious risk to health and safety arising from an immediate or imminent exposure to a hazard. The worker must notify the business, and may only continue with that course of action if they reasonably believe that risk still remains. Workers are unlikely to be able to refuse to work under these grounds if public health guidance is being followed and work is permitted at the workplace under the current Alert Level.

The business should work with the worker to try to identify why the work is unsafe, and rectify the matter, so far as reasonably practicable. While the worker’s health and safety concerns are being resolved the business may require them to carry out suitable alternative work. Workers are unlikely to be able to continue to refuse to work under these grounds if public health guidance is being followed, work is permitted at the workplace under the current Alert Level, and all health and safety duties are being met.

For specific guidance on how to manage the risks of COVID-19 at work, and for more detail on processes for addressing worker concerns, see:

Managing health and safety - WorkSafe (external link)

Under employment law, employees have the right to strike if they have reasonable grounds for believing that the strike is justified on the grounds of health or safety. Employees are unlikely to have reasonable grounds to strike on the grounds of health or safety where public health guidance is being followed, or any health and safety duties are being followed and work is permitted at the workplace under the current Alert Level.

Recognising the circumstances with payment

Some employers may negotiate additional compensation on top of current wages, in recognition of the circumstances workers find themselves in facing public health risk themselves and dealing with customers and others facing the same risks. There is, however, no legal requirement for businesses to recognise staff’s commitment with additional pay, and businesses that do must still comply with all of their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Page last revised: 14 August 2020

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