A woman sitting in an office with a laptop. She wears a mask

How can Australia safely return to work after COVID lockdowns?

As New South Wales approaches the 80% double-dose target, restrictions will ease in the next few weeks, and most businesses are expected to reopen.

Although the high vaccination rate is highly encouraging, increasing people’s movements and mingling might result in a surge of COVID-19 cases.

The NSW Government has developed COVID Safety Plans for workplaces and businesses for employers to prepare to re-start their activities while the COVID-19 pandemic is still far from over. These plans focus predominantly on physical distancing, workplace cleaning, monitoring of symptoms, check-in and testing, but remain outdated regarding safe indoor air and ventilation.

“Those Public Health Orders are minimum standards – what the law requires, as a minimum, you have to do to protect your workplace, employees and customers,” said Professor Stephen Duckett, Director of the Health Program at Grattan Institute, at a press conference.

Duckett is also a member of OzSAGE, a multi-disciplinary network of independent Australian experts that today released a practical guide on safe reopening.

OzSAGE utilises a hierarchy-of-control approach, where many “layers” of control measures can be put in place to keep workers and clients safe. No single measure guarantees complete safety, but each layer offers a certain level of protection. Employers can mitigate COVID-19 risks in their workplaces by integrating a range of these measures.

Working from home and vaccination

According to the guide published by OzSAGE, working from home should be encouraged wherever possible to avoid workers mingling in crowded offices.

“We know that facilitating working-from-home arrangements reduces the number of people in the workplace at any one time, and therefore that reduces the risk of transmission,” said Ms Kate Cole, an engineer and occupational hygienist, at the OzSAGE press conference.

Under Public Health Orders, some workers must be fully vaccinated before returning to work, such as educators and care workers. But many workplaces are not covered by such requirements, although there are circumstances where employers can mandate their employees to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine.

OzSAGE experts suggest employers could provide leave or paid time off, reliable and up-to-date information on vaccines effectiveness, or on-site vaccination clinics to support and encourage their employees to get their shots.

“We know that workplaces with high rates of vaccinated employees will have a lower risk of COVID-19 outbreaks, and that improves business continuity for employers,” said Cole.

While vaccination is a vital control measure, it alone is not enough to control the pandemic, particularly as more contagious variants, such as Delta, continue to spread.

Although vaccines are highly effective in reducing hospitalisation and death rates, breakthrough infections do occur. In the past week, 11.7% of the people who died of COVID-19 in Australia were fully vaccinated.

Proper ventilation

The airborne nature of SARS-CoV-2 has been recognised for months. The primary mode of transmission of the COVID-19 infection is via microscopic particles called aerosols in the air.

“The need to mitigate airborne transmission in workplaces is paramount, and therefore employers should ensure that existing plans are reviewed and updated to control for this risk,” wrote the OzSAGE experts.

Poor ventilation in workplace environments means the virus can accumulate and linger in the air workers breathe, contributing to the spread of the infection.

Good building ventilation is a critical factor in mitigating COVID-19 risks in workplaces. A good proxy for ventilation is the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the environment. If indoor space is poorly ventilated, the CO2 workers breathe out builds up over time. 

Measuring CO2 levels in workplaces is a simple way to assess air quality and ventilation. These measures can be done with a CO2 monitor, a device that costs about $100 and gives a result back within minutes. A well-ventilated environment must not record a CO2 concentration higher than 800 ppm.

Natural ventilation – opening windows and doors – can help to keep the CO2 concentration at a safe level. But when natural ventilation is poor (for example, if windows don’t open or air does not circulate well), air purification systems or portable air purifiers can reduce the amount of virus in the air.

Regular testing

Testing workers regularly can also curb the spread of COVID-19. While PCR tests have been Australia’s gold standard throughout the pandemic, they are costly and can take up to 72 hours to return a result.

Rapid antigen tests might represent a valid alternative or complement to PCR tests to screen many people quickly. Workers can self-test themselves at home regularly before going to work with a procedure that takes about 10 to 20 minutes.

“We have seen this technology successfully used in many workplaces recently,” Cole said. “And that’s helped mitigate the risk of asymptomatic persons accessing the work environment, which is crucial.”

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved over 130 COVID-19 rapid antigen tests for inclusion in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) for legal supply in Australia. Last month, federal minister for health Greg Hunt announced that these tests would be available for home use starting from 1 November.

Monitoring, tracing and physical distancing

OzSAGE experts recommended employers keep an eye on the spread of the disease within the community they operate in, ask employees to monitor symptoms, stay home and get tested if these arise.

Physical distance in their workplaces remains essential and can be guaranteed by delineating seating arrangements, floor marking for queuing, and maximum room capacities.

General cleaning and personal hygiene must also be encouraged.

Mask-wearing

OzSAGE did not welcome the NSW Government’s decision to remove the mask mandate at work, which “will likely result in a resurgence of infection,” they wrote. Instead, they recommended workplaces maintain indoor mask use to decrease the risk of COVID-19 spread and consequent disruptions to work.

“COVID-19 is an airborne disease, and the use of masks is integral to reduce transmission and to offer some protection if there is any breakdown of other controls,” OzSAGE wrote. “Masks are also essential because 30–70% of transmission may be asymptomatic, from infected people who look and feel well and may not be aware they are infected.”

“Protective equipment is always at the bottom of the hierarchy of control in a workplace health and safety context,” said Cole. “But that does not mean that it’s not important in the context of COVID. They are a crucial integral part of reducing transmission and offering protection, and they are complementary control.

“Safe workplaces are essential.

“Even though we’ve just opened up in New South Wales, we need to recognise that the risk of COVID transmission in the workplace still exists. Relaxing requirements and Public Health Orders doesn’t override an employee’s duty of care under workplace health and safety legislation.”