There are currently outbreaks overseas of a new disease called COVID-19 (novel coronavirus). As of 20 February, China has recorded 2,118 deaths from the Covid-19 outbreak. Health officials have confirmed 74,576 cases in Mainland China in total, though reports estimate that more than 12,000 of those cases have recovered.
Coronavirus has spread to at least 28 other countries. While there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand to date, it’s important that Kiwi workplaces have policies in place to minimise the spread of any infectious diseases among their staff. Though the likelihood of an imported case in New Zealand is high, the likelihood of a widespread outbreak is low-moderate.
What is Coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large and diverse family of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Like the flu, Coronavirus can be transmitted from person to person. Scientific evidence confirms that coronavirus is spread by droplets – meaning that when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, they may generate droplets containing the virus that may settle on surrounding surfaces.
Droplet-spread diseases like influenza and COVID-19 can be spread by:
- coughing and sneezing
- close personal contact
- contact with an object or surface with viral particles on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
Because Coronavirus is transmitted via droplets, it’s crucial to encourage your staff to practice good cough etiquette and hygiene, including regularly wash and thoroughly drying their hands.
Though experts have not yet confirmed how long symptoms take to show after a person has been infected with COVID-19, current World Health Organization assessments suggest this period is somewhere between 2–10 days.
Keeping Your Staff Safe
Minimising the spread of infectious diseases as much as possible in the workplace is vital to keeping employees safe and well at work. The Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 2015 requires businesses mitigate health and safety risks and protect their workers from them, so far as is reasonably practicable. The main purpose of this Act is to provide for a balanced framework to secure the health and safety of workers and workplaces
Any infectious disease encountered in the workplace is considered a workplace hazard. The Act requires that employers take all practicable steps to mitigate risk and protect workers at all times from workplace hazards.
Under the HSWA, workers are also required to take care of the health and safety of themselves and others while at work, and follow and cooperate with reasonable provided health and safety instructions, policies and procedures.
In the event of COVID-19 emerging in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health has guidance for infectious disease prevention and control for workplaces, which may be useful to protect workers and others now.
Infectious Disease Prevention at Work
There are some simple steps you and your workers can take to protect yourselves and others and help stop the spread of diseases like COVID-19. These include:
- Avoiding close contact with people with cold or flu-like illnesses
- Covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing
- Washing hands (for at least 20 seconds) with soap and water, and drying them thoroughly, regularly throughout the day
- Thoroughly washing and drying hands before eating or handling food
- Thoroughly washing and drying hands after using the bathroom
- Thoroughly washing and drying hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
- Practicing good hygiene and hand washing after caring for sick people
When Employees Return from Mainland China
Workers and staff members returning from Mainland China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan) or who may have been exposed to COVID-19 need to self-isolate to keep your workplace and their communities safe.
Based on evidence and other outbreaks, experts agree that self-isolation is effective. Self-isolation means staying away from situations where you could infect other people – primarily, in situations where you may come in close contact with others. Close contact refers to face-to-face contact closer than 1 metre for more than 15 minutes.
If one of your staff members has returned from Mainland China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan) within the past 14 days, then they should self-isolate for 14 days.
Similarly, if an employee or worker has been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 they should self-isolate for 14 days.
Remind any workers returning from mainland China who are self-isolating that they should isolate from all situations where they may infect other people, including social gatherings, child care and pre-school centres, faith-based gatherings, aged care and health care facilities, restaurants and all other public gatherings.
General Tips for Keeping Your Workplace Safe
Prevention is, as always, the best course of defence against an outbreak of disease at work, and there are a number of actions employers can take to minimise the risk of spreading of infectious diseases in the workplace.
Good Hygiene and Common Sense
Encourage workers to follow the basic personal actions to stop the spread of infectious diseases. These include washing and drying hands regularly and well, staying at home if they are sick, and covering coughs and sneezes.
Providing immunisations to workers (such as the seasonal influenza vaccine) is a great way to help protect your staff and business productivity.
Provide appropriate protection to workers who, by the nature of their work, may be required to have contact with people who are sick. This is particularly relevant for those working in the health care sector, as well as those working in educational institutions such as early childhood education centres.
Maintain Clean Work Environments
Regular cleaning of your workplace will minimise the spread of infection by reducing workers’ contact with contaminated surfaces.
Ensure Good Ventilation
Enclosed spaces can increase the spread of infectious diseases, so it’s important that employers ensure air conditioning systems are well maintained. It is advisable that air conditioning systems do not re-circulate air and are vented to the outside as much as possible.
You can learn more about application of the Act to your industry, duties of PCBUs, engagement with workers and more by reading the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 in full via the New Zealand Legislation website.