Health and safety in a state of emergency

​Whether your staff are working on site as an essential business or at home, the obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act still apply. Given the unpredictability of events and the constant flow of new information, this will be unfamiliar and difficult for all businesses. You still need to ensure that the risks presented by your workers’ work environments are properly managed.

We look at what this means in both the on-site and at-home context.

Working from home

  1. Workplace set-up needs to be considered. Encourage workers to do a self-assessment of their work stations and remind them to take regular breaks while they adjust to the new physical layout and working reality.
  2. Health and safety includes mental health and wellbeing. At a time when people may feel isolated and stressed, trying to maintain some connection through regular calls or virtual meetings is important. Managers should be encouraged to touch base with workers as they would in the office environment.
  3. Another source of stress is the current uncertainty around work. People may feel under pressure to achieve the same level of productivity as they did at the office. This might not be possible due to a reduction in work volume, physical limitations such as working from one screen, or the demands of children and flatmates. Where possible provide re-assurance and remind workers about support services such as Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

Essential businesses

  1. Normal health and safety processes and training must be followed to the maximum extent possible within the Alert Level 4 requirements. People may be tempted to rush if demand is high and because of a general sense of emergency, increasing the risk of a serious accident. Businesses should be actively reminding people to comply with safe practices and procedures.
  2. Continue to assess and reassess risks to safety. The situation and work environments are changing quickly and there will be new risks and hazards to identify and manage.
  3. Follow the Ministry of Health and WorkSafe guidance and have a system to monitor and update processes when this guidance changes. WorkSafe’s advice for essential businesses can be found here.
  4. Identify your more vulnerable workers and actively manage the increased risk that COVID-19 presents to them. Workers who are particularly vulnerable due to underlying health conditions should be at home. Click here for guidance on who is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
  5. Ensure staff understand how changes to work processes are to be implemented. It is critical that active monitoring of work practices with a focus on the protections that are required for both customer and worker protection takes place.

WorkSafe

What is “reasonably practicable” will look very different. Businesses have far less control over remote workers and their set-ups than in an office environment. Essential businesses will likely need to make some adjustments to how work is carried out during Alert Level 4 as well. WorkSafe recognises that changes will be required, including to usual risk mitigation steps, and is asking PCBUs to take a pragmatic approach. The risk profile has also changed with WorkSafe responding to only the most serious accidents. This should not encourage complacency as media and consumer scrutiny of essential businesses is extremely high.

Officers

Officers need to ensure that they are receiving timely information so that they can be satisfied their business has appropriate processes in place to support worker health and safety. They also need to verify that, as issues are identified, appropriate changes are made. In a crisis situation, business leaders need to take ownership of worker safety to ensure that it remains a priority and focus despite the extraordinary pressure that all businesses and workers will be under.

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Related topics: Employment; Employment law reform; Health and safety; Health and safety law

Employment; Health & safety

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COVID-19 series; Practical advice for employers on the COVID-19 response; Employment obligations during lockdown  

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