Workplace Health and Safety in a COVID-19 World
by Rebecca Barnett
Let’s just take a minute to revisit the first five principles in the National COVID-19 safe workplace principles:
- All workers, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment.
- The COVID-19 pandemic requires a uniquely focused approach to work health and safety (WHS) as it applies to businesses, workers and others in the workplace.
- To keep our workplaces healthy and safe, businesses must, in consultation with workers, and their representatives, assess the way they work to identify, understand and quantify risks and to implement and review control measures to address those risks.
- As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually relaxed, businesses, workers and other duty holders must work together to adapt and promote safe work practices, consistent with advice from health authorities, to ensure their workplaces are ready for the social distancing and exemplary hygiene measures that will be an important part of the transition.
- Businesses and workers must actively control against the transmission of COVID-19 while at work, consistent with the latest advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), including considering the application of a hierarchy of appropriate controls where relevant.
An Unstable Identity?
The COVID-19 crisis has done what crises always do – exposed the gaps, cracks and underlying issues that beset a system (and which we have a marked tendency to ignore at our own peril).
In the context of the massage therapy industry, the frantic lobbying to reopen practices during a pandemic astroturfed over the hefty public health and safety obligations that massage therapy businesses needed to fulfil. (Let’s not bargain with terminology here – whatever name you want to apply, massage is a close contact profession. By its very nature, the work violates social/physical distancing so there are some very specific risks that need to be mitigated).
COVID-19 exposed the gap between our identity of choice as health care practitioners and our capacity to meet the associated challenges and responsibilities that arise during a public health crisis.
Sanitation Or Just Sanitiser?
Based on the phone calls AMT Head Office has been receiving over the past month, we know that there are clinics that have reopened in what I would describe as essentially “business as usual plus hand sanitiser”, without completing and documenting a comprehensive risk assessment and implementing risk mitigation plans. In states such as South Australia, this non-compliance with the national workplace health and safety requirement to implement a COVID-19 safe workplace plan could cost you an impressive $5000 fine. Just letting it rip doesn’t seem quite so attractive now.
“… clinics have reopened in what I would describe as essentially ‘business as usual plus hand sanitiser’.”
A third of the calls AMT Head Office is currently receiving are from non-members. Happily, many of those inquiries are from therapists who want to transfer to AMT. But many other calls are from people operating businesses which derive a passive income from the labour of AMT members working either as contractors or room renters or casual workers within their business. The majority of these latter callers are keen to complain to AMT about how long Medibank provider numbers take to be issued but are generally blithely unaware of their obligations to the massage therapists working within their business during COVID-19. This is deeply concerning: massage therapists are basically expected to return to work in environments that may be unsafe for them.
Worker Protections = Public Health Protections
COVID-19 has also laid bare the beating heart of insecure work and casualisation that leaves massage therapists vulnerable to exploitation and unsafe working conditions, where they have little or no control and influence over workplace health and safety protocols.
Many of the recommendations in the union movement’s roadmap to recovery from COVID-19 are now being taken up and promoted by public health advocacy groups (for example, paid pandemic leave so that workers can heed the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health to stay home when they’re sick, a critical part of Australia’s pandemic response … nice work if you can get it).
It turns out that good worker protections are also good public health protections. The massage industry could do well to heed this principle. Cause we’re health practitioners after all.
How many massage therapists do you think have access to any paid leave at all, let alone paid pandemic leave? How many massage therapy businesses have a COVID-19 safe plan with provisions for therapists to stay away from work when they’re unwell? How many businesses are having conscientious and respectful conversations with massage therapists to accommodate their particular circumstances and vulnerabilities at this time?
Re-imagining the Workplace
The emphasis on consultation and working together in the national COVID-19 safe workplace principles provides an opportunity for massage therapists to re-imagine their workplaces as a space where their safety and wellbeing are given the consideration they are due. AMT hopes that the resources and tools currently being developed by the Biosecurity Planning Committee will help to pave the way for some conversations in businesses where massage therapists are providing value. AMT also hopes that these resources will assist sole traders to meet the monumental challenges posed by COVID-19 in their clinic environments.
Please download AMT’s risk assessment guide and detailed examples to help chart your COVID-19 safe workplace journey.
About the Author
During the peak of the pandemic in Australia, Rebecca Barnett was accused of acting more like a Union Secretary than a CEO. If that means that she had become the figurehead for the AMT Board’s deep-seated care for the safety and welfare of AMT members and the public, then she reckons that is an achievement unlocked. If she was a fiftieth as effective as Sally McManus then it will rank as one of the proudest moments of her career.