Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has urged businesses to change hotdesking practices, put hand sanitiser throughout offices, avoid shaking hands, replace physical meetings with video chats and avoid large groups in small spaces.
But none of those recommendations are specifically mandated by workplace laws, which ACTU secretary Sally McManus said allowed employers to “drive a truck” through them. Instead, Ms McManus wants regulations that specify exactly what businesses have to do to protect their workers.
Attorney-General Christian Porter disagreed, saying current rules covered the coronavirus and Safe Work had created guidance on how they applied industry-by-industry without the need for more regulation.
In Victoria, the CFMMEU and construction industry bodies issued a joint call on Wednesday for coronavirus restrictions to be eased, joining the restaurant sector in arguing for economic life to start returning to normal.
But Mr Porter, who is also minister for industrial relations, signalled the government was open to another ACTU proposal encouraging the states to adopt more uniform rules about when businesses have to tell workplace regulators about COVID-19 cases.
The largest outbreak in Australian in recent days has centred on the Cedar Meats Australia plant in outer Melbourne, where almost 50 people have been infected.
The states and territories, which are responsible for work health and safety, have inconsistent rules on when a business like Cedar has to notify workplace health and safety authorities that one of its workers has caught the coronavirus.
Queensland businesses only have to notify health authorities, not work regulators; Victorian businesses have to tell workplace authorities if one of their workers has caught the coronavirus and died; while those in NSW have to tell the workplace regulator if any employee caught the virus at work.
The ACTU wants all businesses to be forced to notify workplace authorities when any worker catches the virus, or comes into contact with someone who has, so that clusters don’t spread under the radar and more dangerous industries can be identified quickly.
Mr Porter said the ACTU had a point and he would “have a look at” their suggestion. Having created 1300 web pages detailing how employers should deal with coronavirus to date, Ms Smith-Gander said the Safe Work board was meeting to consider what it should prioritise next later this week.
Health authorities already have to be notified about all coronavirus cases.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.