Risk in Context

COVID-19: Infection Control in your Workplace

Posted by Cliff McCord April 30, 2020

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) in New Zealand, a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) / employer must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers and others affected by its operations.

The HSWA in New Zealand requires employers to understand the WHS hazards in their workplaces, assess the risk of these hazards and implement controls to eliminate or reduce the risk of these hazards. With the COVID-19 pandemic upon us, the risk of workers or others being exposed to the virus is real and all employers must implement strategies to eliminate this risk where possible, or reduce it to as low as is reasonably practicable.

Most employers already undertake basic infection control processes to prevent the spread of communicable diseases and limit exposure to bodily fluids. However, the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 means basic infection control processes will not be enough.

Infection control is not just a discipline for health care providers and hospitals, it should form a part of our everyday lives.

All workplaces should have an infection control policy and processes in place to define how the workplace is to identify and manage the risk of infection. Infection control policies should be reviewed and updated to ensure they meet the new risks faced by COVID-19. In particular, workplaces that remain in operation must act now to ensure operations can continue, as one COVID-19 infection will likely see business operations ceased.

What is an infection?

An infection is caused by pathogens (e.g. viruses, bacteria, fungi) entering the body.

How is an infection caused?

Infections spread in a number of ways:

  1. Airborne – a person inhales airborne pathogens. Usually these airborne pathogens originate from an infected person coughing or sneezing.
  2. Touching – a person touches contaminated surfaces or objects. This can include a person ingesting contaminated food.
  3. Skin to skin – a person may touch an infected person, for example shaking hands.
  4. Bodily fluids – a person may come into contact with pathogens from an infected person’s saliva, urine, blood or faeces. These pathogens can enter the person through cuts/abrasions or through the mucus membranes of the mouth and nose.

What are the likely infection sources for COVID-19?

As a new virus, the general population has no immunity to COVID-19. The virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  The discharge can contaminate surfaces. If another person touches a contaminated surface and then their nose, eyes or mouth, that person will likely become infected.

What do you do when an employee presents with flu like symptoms?

Request employees to stay home if they are experiencing any signs or symptoms of illness. At the first onset of a sore throat, workers should go home to prevent any infection of other persons.

Employees who show symptoms but have neither traveled overseas nor been in close contact with infected individuals may be suffering from the flu or common cold. These employees should seek advice from health care providers while avoiding contact with others.

Employees should be directed to official government advice on COVID-19.

What can employers and the workforce do to reduce the chance of infections?

If your workplace is still in operation, there are a number of ways you can reduce the chances of a spread of COVID-19 infection. Each workplace will have different needs based on the type of workplace, whether it be a workplace with public interaction or a workplace supplying food or essential services that must maintain operations. Therefore, like with all health and safety hazards, it is advised a risk assessment be completed.

Workplaces must provide suitable access to hand hygiene facilities such as soap and water and alcohol based sanitiser or wipes for workers and others such as visitors or members of the public to clean their hands. It is also advisable to post diagrams of correct hand washing techniques next to hand hygiene facilities.

If workers prepare food as part of their duties, hand hygiene facilities must be separate to food preparation and dish washing facilities.

If hand wash facilities are not readily available, alcohol based sanitiser must be provided to workers. Hand hygiene facilities should be increased at this time to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Cleaning is important in order to achieve a basic level of infection prevention and control. Workplaces should increase cleaning at this time to ensure regular wiping of frequently touched surfaces such as doors and door handles, bench tops, machine operation controls where there are more than one operator, lift and stair surfaces such as buttons and handrails.

Workplaces should implement social distancing as much as possible, even in workplaces with no members of the public. Review the size of the workplace to determine how many workers can be there at one time. The current recommendation for indoors is one person per 4 square metres.

Consider split shifts to reduce the number of workers at work at any one time or moving workers to different areas of the workplace to reduce social interaction. Move workstations, desks or benches away from each other or consider moving as many workers as possible to working from home arrangements.

Communication regularly to workers to strictly adhere to social distancing both at work and at home.

Seasonal influenza vaccination offered annually may be appropriate to prevent transmission of influenza to workers and to reduce work time lost due to influenza. It is not a requirement under legislation that this vaccination is offered to the workforce.

If you would like to learn more or discuss COVID-19 risks and strategies, please contact your Marsh representative, or email us enquiries@wellnz.co.nz

[1] World Health Organisation 

Cliff McCord

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