Written by: Nick Hackenberg, Senior Employment Relations Adviser
A well-fitted, clean face mask is essential to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Different states and territories may have different rules about wearing face masks or coverings at work. This can depend on whether an enforceable government or public health direction applies so make sure you check if any of these directions apply to your business. You can be held legally accountable if you do not fulfil your employer health and safety obligations, as well as if you put your employees’ health at serious risk.
In this post we explain why ensuring your employees have correct face mask protection is crucial to avoiding legal issues and keeping your staff and customers safe. We’ll explain how to make sure you adhere to the rules correctly, avoid fines, and help you protect your staff and customers.
Workplace health and safety legislation in each state and territory stipulate employers’ obligations to protect workers from harm and provide a safe working environment. This means ensuring that all employees wear face masks in the workplace if a health direction is in place to this effect. Even if there are no mandatory face mask restrictions in your workplace’s area, a health and safety risk assessment that you conduct in consultation with your workers may conclude that wearing face masks is a reasonable control measure to manage the risk of infectious respiratory disease transmission.
If a requirement to wear face masks is in place and an employee doesn’t have a clean mask to use, you must provide them with this protection. The type of face mask used will depend on the setting and it is your responsibility to provide training, instruction and correct information on how to handle the appropriate use, storage, decontamination and disposal of face mask protection where a government or public health direction is in place, or your risk assessment concludes that wearing masks is a reasonably necessary control measure.
With active restrictions, it’s essential you regularly check up to-date public health orders on government websites. You have an obligation to conduct a risk assessment in consultation with your workers with respect to COVID-19 and it may be a mandatory requirement in specific circumstances such as where a worker has tested positive to COVID-19. When conducting a risk assessment, take into account how people move around the workplace, if your employees have contact with the public in the workplace as well as if there are any vulnerable workers in your business, then factor this in.
If wearing face masks is mandatory, it’s important to communicate this clearly. For employers, a written communication to staff can be a reassuring record of their responsibility to enforce the public health order.
As part of your duty to keep your staff safe, it’s vital you ensure employees have a clean supply of face masks in the workplace, and that they are properly informed on safe handling, use, storage, decontamination, and disposal of face masks.
Providing personal protective equipment such as a face mask can be an effective control measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and comply with health and safety obligations in the workplace. Therefore, if you run out of your supply of face masks, or they become unusable, you will need to replace them as soon as possible, this may mean closing the workplace temporarily, whilst more protection is purchased. If your employee’s mask becomes unusable during work-related travel, be assured you may reimburse them any costs in purchasing new protection and ask them to keep receipts and records.
What if my employee refuses to wear a face mask?
First, discuss with the employee the reason for their refusal, if there is a valid reason such as a medical condition or illness or a disability. It is recommended to seek expert advice on alternatives for individual employees who fall into this category as employers need to balance an employee’s anti-discrimination, unfair dismissal, and general protections while ensuring that their refusal does not cause the business to breach its health and safety and public health directive obligations. At Employsure we offer expert advice to ensure a fair and safe workplace.
If the employee refuses to wear a face mask and has a valid reason, consider alternative duties for the employee or if the employee is able to work from home, you can allow then to do so. If working from home is absolutely not an option, then you can agree with the employee to take any accrued annual or long service leave or leave without pay while you investigate alternative options for the employee’s ongoing employment.
If the employee steadfastly refuses to wear a face mask and it is not for a valid reason and no agreement can be reached, employers may be in a position to initiate a disciplinary process. Always seek expert advice before initiating such a process.
Remember, it’s your responsibility to keep your employees safe and eliminate or reduce health risks as far as reasonably practicable. Gather as much expert knowledge as you can and be armed with information to adhere to your employer obligations.
Need more information about facemasks in the workplace? Download the free employer guide.