WHS: Workplace health and safety and COVID-19
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 3, 11 May 2020, page no. 16
Under the Work Health Safety Act 2011 (Qld), the Department of Education must ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers (and others) in their workplace.
As a result of the ongoing negotiations with the QTU, the department has introduced more stringent measures to protect people from acquiring COVID-19. In particular, there are stronger directions for schools to implement social distancing, the importance of which as an essential WHS response should not be underestimated.
Principals are responsible for the implementation of on-site health and safety measures in accordance with department’s Term 2 School Operating Guidelines.
What measures are in place in Queensland state schools?
To eliminate or mitigate the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 in schools, the department’s Term 2 operating guidelines require:
- arrangements to allow staff and student to regularly clean their hands
- access to Procurement Services for those schools having difficulty in obtaining hygiene products
- social distancing protocols in classrooms, including limiting numbers of students in accordance with the size of the learning space
- restrictions to ensure that students and families do not congregate
- visitors to maintain a social distance of 1.5 metres from each other
- that unwell students and/or staff members remain or return home
- sharing of small office spaces to be avoided and adherence to social distancing of at least 1.5 metres in staff rooms and other small spaces
- that meetings involving school staff should be held via telephone or online (NB: the use of the word “should” establishes an expectation that meetings by other means can only occur in exceptional circumstance or when the use of telephone or online methods are not available, and social distancing must be actively considered)
- school cleaning to prioritise those areas in use by students and staff with extra attention to high touch point surfaces
- vulnerable workers, those with other medical conditions (requires a medical certificate) and those living with a vulnerable person to be able to work from home.
Health and safety representatives – an essential tool
The Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) has developed WHS guidelines on COVID-19 in workplaces, which identify the importance of the health and safety representative (HSR), a formal position under the act designed to give workers a voice on health and safety matters in their workplaces and involve workers in consultation.
To get an HSR in place, workers ask the principal to facilitate an election. The principal will call for nominations, and if more than one person nominates, an election would take place. The elected HSR would then be able to assist in developing WHS responses to matters within the workplace, including the school’s response to COVID-19, and represent the worker group on the school’s WHS committee.
The HSR is required to undertake five days of mandatory training, and if a teacher, will have access to an additional four days of release to support their work across the year. The QCU has established an HSR discussion group to consider the way COVID-19 is impacting on workplaces.