With the World Health Organisation (WHO) today indicating that a worldwide swine flu pandemic is "imminent", employers should be actively considering their OHS responsibilities.
The WHO today raised its flu alert to five on a scale of six, and public health experts are saying the pandemic could infect more than 25 per cent of the world's population. According to insurance broker and strategic risk adviser Marsh, many organisations believe that at the peak of the swine flu pandemic, up to 75 per cent of the workforce may be absent from work.
The OHS implications for businesses - particularly in industries which do not commonly encounter OHS-related incidents- could be significant.
Harmers Workplace Lawyers managing partner Joydeep Hor said that the swine flu outbreak highlights the need for employers to constantly be on top of their legal obligations arising under OHS legislation regarding the health of their employers.
"I guess there's always a tendency to focus on a particular crisis or epidemic, particularly when there's a linkage to Australia, and, absolutely, that's important. But the obligations that employers have are no different to what their obligations always are when it comes to ensuring the health, welfare and safety of their employees," he said.
According to Hor, these obligations usually come under the spotlight in more "hands on" industries such as mining or manufacturing where serious physical injuries or fatalities can occur, and he emphasised that employers should be aware that the law is not limited to these sorts of cases.
Deacons partner Michael Tooma agreed that employers in organisations in which OHS issues are less prevalent should ensure they know where they stand. "Some employers might not appreciate that the duty of care they currently have to their employees and non-employees in their workplace extends not only to physical risks such as persons being exposed to physical injury, but also to exposure to diseases and illnesses," he said. "Now, in the current context of the swine flu concern, that would mean employers have a proactive duty to take reasonable steps to make sure that their employees are not exposed to the risk of contamination from swine flu from their work activities and the conduct of the business activities of the company."
Tooma pointed to a number of pragmatic measures business could adopt, including restricting overseas travel, requiring those who return from overseas to be cleared before returning to work and taking steps in relation to personal hygiene and workplace cleanliness.
"[It's important] to make sure that that easy steps that are available to employers are, in fact, taken now - well before things escalate," he said.
Hor advised businesses to appoint a person within the organisation to monitor the situation and stay abreast of the particular risk factors in the locations in which the organisation operates. He says keeping employees informed is also important. "If people feel that there are issues of concern to them or they have suspicions about people who may have been exposed, there needs to be mechanisms internally for that to be raised," he says. He also cautioned organisations to carefully consider how they went about implementing such policies to avoid unnecessary panic: "You don't want it to be a free-for-all which just generates hysteria within your organisation."
- Zoe Lyon