COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace: roles and responsibilities

March 2, 2021

The first Australians received their COVID-19 vaccinations recently, with a mass vaccination program currently taking place around the country. This has implications for businesses, given employers have an obligation to eliminate or minimise the risk of contracting the novel corona virus in the workplace. Vaccination may form part of the strategies businesses employ to address this risk. The right approach, however, will depend on your values, the industry you operate in and your existing workplace agreements.

 

What are my responsibilities?

According to Safework Australia’s guidelines, businesses have a duty of care to eliminate or minimise the risk of exposure to the corona virus in the workplace. On a practical level, this involves doing a risk assessment into the potential for staff to contract the virus at work and exploring control measures to contain the spread of the disease. Some of the factors to consider include the advice of public health authorities and the risk of exposure, including staff contact with the wider community. Businesses are also expected to consult with staff around this and determine and roll out steps to ensure staff are protected.

Jeremy Streten, legal practice director, SMS Law, notes the right course of action will be different for every business.

“There’s no current law or public health order in Australia that requires people to get the vaccine. That means the circumstances in which an employer can require employees to get the vaccination are limited,” he says.

Streten explains there’s three scenarios under which employers can require staff to be vaccinated. These include if there is a specific law, if their enterprise agreement or their contract of employment requires staff to be vaccinated and if there’s a lawful or reasonable excuse for the employer to require vaccination.

But it would be very difficult for an employer to mandate vaccination, for instance some staff may have medical grounds for refusal. Nevertheless, some higher risk businesses, for instance airlines and health sector organisations, might consider introducing a clause in employment contracts or enterprise bargaining agreements that stipulates staff should be vaccinated for COVID-19, in the same way they require staff to be vaccinated for other diseases.

 

Taking a measured approach

High stakes communication adviser Jane Jordan says it’s critical for organisations to carefully consider their communication strategy around COVID-19 vaccinations.

“It’s important to communicate the facts simply because this is a vexed area. It’s tricky because organisations must look after their staff. But they also can’t discriminate against employees who don’t want to get the vaccine. Ultimately, your values and culture should determine your response.”

Jordan says different stakeholder groups will require different approaches. Some staff will have older parents in nursing homes they want to ensure are protected. Others will be new graduates potentially living by themselves. Another group will be families with young kids trying to balance many different responsibilities. “You need to look at your total employee population and be very audience-centric.”

It’s also vital to understand how workers’ compensation may respond in the event one or more of your staff contract COVID-19 in the course of their work. Each of the different state-based workers’ compensation authorities would consider each employee’s situation individually. It may be an idea to talk to your local authority about the support it can offer organisations during the pandemic.

No matter what approach your business takes to COVID-19 vaccinations, now’s the time to consult with staff and put in place an appropriate strategy to ensure everyone who comes into contact with the business is safe and their rights are respected. That’s the best way to meet your obligations and reduce risks to the business.

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