It has become increasingly common for WorkSafe to interview practices about potential breaches of work health and safety legislation. It’s news you don’t want to receive in the year of coping with crises.
As Australia moves toward 'COVID-normal', many practices are grappling with their next challenge. Avant has received a number of calls and requests for advice about work health and safety (WHS) concerns, and enforcing appropriate safety standards is more relevant than ever.
Keeping staff safe
Avant Special Counsel – Employment Law, Sonya Black, explains that medical practices, like all other businesses in Australia, are responsible for keeping their workers safe. WHS legislation requires anyone conducting a business in Australia to:
- do what is reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of workers and others visiting the business
- consult with staff about eliminating and minimising risks to health and safety.
In the context of COVID-19, it is also important to be aware of local public health orders which may specify additional emergency safety measures such as mask-wearing, work from home requirements, record-keeping requirements or physical distancing measures.
Document your plan
Many states require businesses have a COVIDSafe plan as a condition of operating. It's a good way of making sure you have thought through safety risks for your practice and recorded the steps you are taking.
In the early stages of COVID, many WHS regulators took a supportive and educative approach to safety concerns, as long as businesses had made genuine attempts to comply. There's now an increasing expectation that appropriate safety will be part of business-as-usual operation, and regulators may be taking a tougher stance on breaches.
Regulators have broad powers to ensure practices are operating safely. They can shut practices down and there can be WHS prosecutions. Failing to have appropriate COVID-safety measures in place may also breach public health orders, which could involve separate investigations and penalties from the state health department.
What to include
Your plan needs to cover how you will manage six areas:
- physical distancing for your team and visitors and compliance with density quotients
- hygiene – respiratory and hand
- training and education – for the practice team and patients
- cleaning – who is responsible for cleaning, when, what they use to clean
- compliance – how you are monitoring compliance by patients and the team
- record keeping and response planning – consider what you will do if a staff member or visitor is infected, and what records you have to identify casual and close contacts.
Talk to your team
Think about the risks in your particular situation, which may include specific concerns of those working in your practice, your patient cohort, public health issues and warnings in your state and local area. It is important that staff feel they can raise safety concerns, even if that is the last thing you want to deal with. It is much worse to be blindsided by a safety incident or by a WorkSafe inspection.
"One of the issues I'm seeing is that the practice manager will have prepared a COVIDSafe plan but haven’t explained it to all staff," says Angela Mason-Lynch, Avant Risk Adviser. "That can mean staff haven't thought through risks like sharing lunch-room facilities or who is responsible for safety issues if the practice manager is away."
"It is also important to maintain a consistent approach to safety across the practice. Maybe your plan says that visitors and patients must wear a mask or use a specific entrance or exit, but staff may not have the confidence to make sure visitors are sticking to the safety plan. It's important staff can raise concerns and get support if they're struggling to enforce the plan."
Keep plans up-to-date
Unfortunately, you can't create a plan and forget it. Plans need to be reviewed and updated periodically and you will need to inform staff each time a plan changes. We suggest reviewing every 2–3 months, or if there is a change in circumstances. Changes to public health requirements are usually announced and covered in the media, but it is important to keep an eye on state health department website for updates.
“Delegating responsibility to a dedicated person in your team whose job is to monitor the government and media for updates and bring that information to the wider group can take pressure off a busy practice manager,” suggests Avant Risk Adviser, Annabel Herron.
If you do hear about safety concerns or receive a request from a WHS inspector, make sure you get in touch with your medical indemnity insurer so that they can guide you through your response. “It is important to engage them at the earliest possible stage,” says Alex Donnan. “This ensures potential problems can be addressed proactively and any risks or areas of confusion can be clarified.”
We know keeping staff and patients safe during an evolving public health crisis has involved extraordinary measures from medical practices. If you and your staff are feeling burnt out and exhausted, you are not alone. We strongly encourage you to seek help if you are starting to feel overwhelmed.
Avant COVID-19: medico-legal advice for doctors and practices
Avant: Ask the Expert webinar series
Australian Medical Association: AMA COVIDSafe Practice Guide
Safe Work Australia: COVID-19 information for workplaces
Australian Government Department of Health: health and aged care sector advice