Small business owners risk being non-compliant with coronavirus occupational health and safety (OH&S) regulations unless official advice from state and federal regulators can be simplified, says the peak body representing the sector.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease across Australia, small businesses are turning their attention to post-pandemic trading and getting back to the office is near the top of the list.
But while some states have begun encouraging businesses to get back to work, Council of Small Businesses of Australia (COSBOA) boss Peter Strong says new health and safety guidelines are onerous and difficult for small businesses to navigate, raising concern some might forego re-opening.
“There’s 1400 pages of guidelines, so all that means is that every business will be non-compliant,” Strong says.
“We’re talking with governments at the moment about creating something more reasonable.”
Business lobbyists have been in the ears of state and federal government officials for weeks, pushing their plans for easing trading restrictions on their industries or setting OH&S guidelines for so-called ‘COVIDSafe’ operations.
The federal government has leaned on the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) and Safe Work Australia to push a range of advice to firms about their OH&S obligations, and what hoops firms in particular industries will need to jump through.
The NCCC has released an online planning tool for businesses looking to return to the office, outlining a range of new occupational health and safety considerations, based on 10 ‘COVIDSafe’ principles agreed to by National Cabinet late last month.
The principles require businesses to actively control against the transmission of coronavirus by ensuring social distancing in the workplace and displaying “exemplary hygiene”.
Strong says COSBOA supports the creation of healthy and safe workplaces in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, but is concerned many firms won’t get the message in its current form.
“We believe in safety, but you don’t want to make it impossible,” Strong says.
Safe Work is developing nationally consistent OH&S guidance for firms relating to the coronavirus outbreak, with industry-by-industry information available for businesses.
But Strong says governments will need to consider additional avenues for businesses to get tailored advice about what OH&S guidelines mean for their own businesses to ensure re-opening doesn’t carry unnecessary risk of fueling a second wave of infections.
‘Hot-desking in dead’
Operating a workplace now looks very different than it did six months ago. Businesses will now be required to conduct regular risk assessments, fund and maintain health measures, and in some cases re-format offices to comply with social distancing.
Practices like hot-desking, which for years have underpinned the burgeoning co-working industry, are now contentious in these post-pandemic, pre-vaccine times.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions declared the practice effectively “dead” in comments reported by the SMH on Sunday.
Australian Bureau of Statistics research published Monday indicates there will be a sizeable influx of workers back into offices over the coming months, with as many as 48% of working Aussies currently doing so from home.
It comes as higher risk customer-facing businesses like cafes and restaurants face the prospect of installing barriers between patrons under advice put to governments by the Restaurant & Catering Association.
Meanwhile, the federal government is stepping in to up-skill workers to deal with coronavirus infections, unveiling an $80 million program to expand infection control training to workers in the retail, transport and logistics sectors on Saturday.
Other changes to industrial relations legislation are expected later this year to ease the transition to post-pandemic trading for business owners, but there’s scant detail as to what any changes to Australia’s award-based system could look like.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told The Australian yesterday he wants employers and employees to work together to chart a way out of the coronavirus crisis, saying there had been “rigidity” in workplace relationships before the pandemic.
“What’s important is that we are able to have a set of new arrangements in place and they can both do well and not be held back,” Morrison said.