Addressing health and safety concerns

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

Last updated: 15 May 2020

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Principles under which workplaces may operate

Alert Level 2

Under Alert Level 2 many more businesses will open up and workers return to work. The key public health requirements stay the same at Alert Level 2. Businesses should maintain hygiene measures, including physical distancing, hand washing and regularly cleaning surfaces. Businesses are expected to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. Remember to consider what has changed and think about all your health and safety risks.

All businesses are encouraged to use alternative ways of working if possible. This means businesses that don’t normally have customers on their premises could continue to have staff work from home.

If workers are sick they should stay home.

WorkSafe has developed guidance about operating safely.

Operating safely at Alert Level 2 - WorkSafe (external link)

Alert Level 3

People are required to work from home unless that is not possible. Workplaces can open to workers only if:

  • workers cannot work from home, and
  • workplaces are operating safely.

Workplaces can only open their premises to the public, in addition to their workers, if they are providing an essential service and were able to under Alert Level 4 – ie. emergency and frontline essential public services, supermarkets, pharmacies, dairies and petrol stations. Under Alert Level 3, workplaces are able to provide contactless delivery, or contactless pick up from their premises, but customers are not allowed to enter the shop/building.

'Operating safely' means:

  • complying with Alert Level 3 settings, and
  • meeting appropriate public health requirements for their workplace, and
  • fulfilling all other health and safety obligations and duties.

This means if businesses cannot operate safely, staff must not go to work and premises should remain closed.

Most businesses cannot open their premises to the public. This means:

  • Retail is possible through delivery, pick-up or drive-through collection, this includes prepared food. Retailers may only open their premises to workers to facilitate this.
  • No consumption of food or drink is allowed by customers on premises.
  • Businesses cannot offer services that involve close personal contact, unless it is an emergency or critical situation. 

Essential services operating at Alert Level 4 can operate in the same way at Alert Level 3.

For more information on doing business under the current alert level, see:

COVID-19 website (external link)

For more information on public health controls, see:

COVID-19: Advice for workplaces - Ministry of Health (external link)

For more information on ways of operating safely, including in different sectors, see:

COVID-19: Managing health and safety - Worksafe (external link)  

Minimising the risk of COVID-19 transmission at work

All businesses must operate in a way that eliminates or minimises the risk of COVID-19 transmission. For example, businesses should:

  • have staff work from home wherever possible. Read guidance about health and safety:
    Working from home - WorkSafe (external link)
  • restrict activity to only what is permitted under the current Alert Level
  • implement the highest level of protections for workers so far as is reasonably practicable, which may include:
    • isolating workers, or putting in place engineering controls such as barriers
    • eliminating, or if that’s not possible, minimising physical interactions among workers, and with and between customers
    • ensuring appropriate health, hygiene and safety measures are in place
    • following Ministry of Health advice about physical distancing
    • implementing the Ministry of Health advice on the use of PPE for essential workers and others where appropriate.
  • work together with workers to identify if they should remain home under public health guidance. The COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme can provide support for employers of eligible workers if they or their dependents are sick with COVID-19, have had close contact with an infected person, or are at higher risk of severe illness and can’t work from home.
  • consider and manage any risks arising from their changed operations, for example managing the risks of shift working, or workers working alone.

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)

Workplace infectious disease prevention - Ministry of Health (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.

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