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Back to work: the ‘forgotten’ WHS issue

Emergency preparedness needs to be part of every return-to-work plan.
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Back to work: the ‘forgotten’ WHS issue

Back to work: the ‘forgotten’ WHS issue

2 June 2020

By Marise Donnolley

As you gear up to return to work safely, there’s one issue you may be overlooking – your ability to respond to an emergency.

Consider this: What if some staff continue to work remotely and you no longer have a fire warden or first aid officer on site? How do you maintain social distancing while conducting fire and evacuation drills? Where can groups of people safely assemble? And what about hygiene factors, such as stairwell handrails that staff touch as they exit a building?

Gregory Metzger, general manager of First 5 Minutes, said emergency preparedness needed to be part of every return-to-work plan.

“Businesses are obligated to be emergency prepared and ready,” he said.

“An emergency could present at any time irrespective of COVID-19 and the challenges associated with the new ‘normal’.”

The Australian Standard Planning for Emergencies in Facilities provides guidelines and requirements to ensure the safety of building occupants in the event of an emergency.

Part of that standard requires businesses to conduct an emergency evacuation plan, but that’s no easy feat with COVID-19 in our midst.

“The challenge is not the evacuation, but rather the ability or challenges around conducting an evacuation in a manner that is safe in the current COVID environment,” said Gregory.

“Businesses don’t have the usual structure in place to be able to respond should the building go into evacuation, be it manually or automatically. A simple evacuation down the fire stairs changes from going down the stairs single file holding onto the rails to ensuring sanitisation points are set up and people are moved in one direction, without cross over, and 1.5 metres apart.”

The staggered return of employees also presents challenges for a safe return to work. If fire or safety wardens are working remotely, other employees will need to be trained to step into those roles.

“Once businesses have put in place everything they can, and have the knowledge they need, they will be comfortable to return to work,” Gregory said.

“But we have to be careful. We’re not going to be sharing donuts in the office and going back to the good old times.”

Emergencies aside, WHS lawyer Alan Girle, from Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors, said organisations should review all their safety documents to ensure processes and procedures were still effective.

He said depleted staff numbers could pose safety risks for businesses, especially if they were in safety-critical roles, such as spotters.

“You often see accidents when there is a change in the way people carry out their tasks,” he said.

“What we’re having now is a big change and there needs to be extra care to bring back workers safely.”

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