Community transmission of COVID-19 is inching ever-closer to zero across Australia. But as lockdown restrictions ease, internal boarders open up, and people begin returning to work, the nation faces a new obstacle in the fight against coronavirus: complacency.
It’s perhaps natural, after months of lockdown, for us to heave a sigh of relief. After all, bringing contamination rates down so low is a key milestone and a notable achievement in the global community. But with over 35,000 Australians still waiting to be repatriated from abroad, the fight is far from over.
We’ve already seen how quickly a coronavirus cluster can form and impact local restrictions, with the outbreak in Adelaide. Without remaining vigilant and continuing to protect against potential exposure, we risk plunging back into lockdown – with all of the consequences to public health and the economy that we’ve experienced throughout 2020.
While many businesses will continue offering flexible and remote working in some capacity, we could see significant numbers of people returning to their workplaces in the weeks and months ahead. This is, in my view, essential for business and the economy – both through driving collaboration in office environments and through ancillary spending in shops, restaurants and public transport – but it must be done with caution. We can’t depend on a widely available vaccine in the short-term, making COVID-Safe measures crucial to protecting the nation.
Now, more than ever, employers have a key role to play in the fight against coronavirus. If you’re not following best practices to ensure your employees stay vigilant – complying with COVID-Safe guidelines and continuously checking for potential symptoms – you could risk being at the epicentre of a new coronavirus outbreak.
To avoid a coronavirus cluster developing in your organisation, and the potential financial and legal penalties associated, you need to consider two main areas: proactive steps to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak; and information gathering to support track and trace.
At the height of the pandemic, workplaces were reported as being a significant contributor to the virus’ spread, with locations such as distribution centres, call centres and meat processing facilities being identified as particularly high risk.
Regardless of their organisation’s size, type or industry, I firmly believe employers have a duty to protect their employees against coronavirus exposure as best they can. In the first instance, it’s imperative you check your local guidelines for creating a COVID-Safe workplace. Regulations can vary significantly from one region to another – with those such as Victoria only recently easing lockdown restrictions, while others have seen minimal cases for some months.
But compliance isn’t the finish line. As we enter this new phase of the pandemic, organisations of all shapes and sizes should look to go above and beyond compliance by establishing and following best practices.
This can encompass a plethora of physical, administrative and procedural changes. Facilitating social distancing, ensuring adequate indoor ventilation, staggering start times, cleaning workstations and communal touchpoints, and managing the flow of people through entry points, corridors and stairways are just a few measures your organisation will need to consider.
Employers ultimately need to reimagine and reengineer their workplaces for the long-term: the new measures are unlikely to become obsolete soon. In fact, Australian Medical Association president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said that “living with the threat of COVID-19 means that sensible restrictions must remain part of our lives for the foreseeable future.”
It’s also important to recognise that many employees may still feel anxious about being exposed to the virus – particularly if they or a family member are vulnerable. Following best practices and going the extra mile to protect employees can not only help combat the virus; it can also give your workforce the security and peace of mind they need to return to work with confidence.
Track and Trace
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reiterated the importance of track and trace as we enter this new phase of the pandemic, with an emphasis on the role businesses must play in its success. While restaurants introduce QR codes and reports indicate that credit cards will be used to track and trace in hotspots, there are ways for all businesses to support and enable effective track and tracing.
Indeed the Prime Minister has indicated that the recording of contact tracing data should be a condition of entry for any workplace. Check in technology should be ‘everywhere’ – so, if an outbreak or cluster does occur, the authorities can move quickly to stop it spreading further.
The process for gathering this information needs to be quick, simple, and user-friendly to encourage uptake. The data itself must be easily accessible and able to be shared quickly and effectively if required by the relevant authorities. Manual, paper-based processes are unlikely to be adequate, meaning businesses need to invest in the right technology to support track and trace.
As with the proactive measures outlined above, this isn’t just about compliance. You need to do everything you can to protect against the virus. By combining track and trace information gathering with a simple, daily self-screening process, you can add an extra layer of protection for your business.
We were first approached by our clients to support with this early in the pandemic. Eppione provides an integrated HR and employee benefits platform to over 900 businesses across the globe. When our clients started asking how we could help them protect employees in the pandemic, we designed Screenin.me – a simple, effective and secure self-screening platform.
By asking employees a few questions on their mobile, tablet or desktop each day before they leave for work, we find you can encourage your workforce to be vigilant and stay home if they have potential symptoms. Screenin.me delivers an instant pass or fail result, clearly indicating whether the employee is safe to go to work – so you can help minimise exposure, as well as give your workforce peace of mind that their health is being looked after.
Time-stamped records of both the screening test and the individual’s entry to the building are automatically maintained and kept easily accessible to support track and trace – while protecting employee confidentiality. Should an outbreak occur, you can securely export and transfer the appropriate data in just a few minutes.
There are many information gathering methods available to support track and trace. It’s crucial that, whichever method you adopt, data is secure and employee confidentiality is protected as far as possible. But by combining track and trace support with daily self-screening, you can go one step further to help minimise virus exposure and enable a quick response if a case is identified.
Ultimately, there are many ways your business can protect employees against coronavirus exposure. There’s no playbook for operational excellence, with many of these challenges having never been faced in our lifetime.
As an organisation, you need to combat complacency. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we’re COVID-free. We still have a long way to go, and devising a clear, robust plan for proactively reducing workplace exposure and supporting track and trace will help to protect your employees, your business, and your reputation in the months ahead.