#190 How to support general practice employees during the COVID-19 pandemic


27 July 2020

Employees in GP practice settings are at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, due to close contact with patients, fellow staff members and the public. The following advice has been adapted for the Victorian GP practice setting. 

What is my responsibility to all my staff as an employer?

As far as is reasonably possible, employers have a duty to provide and maintain a safe working environment that minimises or eliminates risks to the health of their employees. Along with minimising potential exposure to COVID-19, risks to psychological and physical health must also be considered.

Employees have responsibilities to comply and cooperate with occupational health and safety measures put in place by their employer, as well as the responsibility to take reasonable care of their own and others' health and safety whilst in the workplace. 

The employer may require the employee to provide a statutory declaration or other reasonable evidence (such as a medical certificate), to prove the reason for the higher risk status or pre-existing condition. 

Steps employers should take to keep all employees safe 

Defining a high risk employees

Higher risk employees fall into the following categories:

Employers must undertake an occupational risk assessment for high risk employees

An occupational risk assessment must be undertaken to inform any modifications to the workflows or the working environment of the higher risk employee. This is followed by implementing risk mitigation measures; such risk assessments take into account the characteristics of the higher risk worker, the work they are performing and the workplace environment. 

Employers must be flexible with high risk employees

Employers are encouraged to adopt a flexible approach to granting leave or agreeing to alternative or flexible working arrangements. Employees are encouraged to work with their employer to find suitable and reasonable modifications or arrangements to continue in their role. Early, open communication and negotiation between employer and employee will help facilitate this.

Employers must maintain confidentiality at all times

At each step, be mindful of maintaining confidentiality and privacy of the employee’s health status and other private information. Significant changes to an employee’s practice will be obvious to others, so it may be useful to discuss in advance with the employee how they wish to inform staff and patients of the clinic of their need for workplace modifications. 

Options available for high risk employees

What are an employer’s responsibilities to pregnant employees?

Pregnant healthcare workers may be considered a potentially vulnerable group, especially beyond 28 weeks gestation. Conflicting employment/occupational guidance available poses a challenge to employers and employees in addressing this issue. Current available information does not appear to suggest that pregnant women are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness than the general population. However it is true to say that generally this population is regarded as higher risk when affected by respiratory infections. This is due to pregnancy-related changes in their body and immune system, so there is some confusion amongst employees and employers. 

Pregnant women are encouraged to follow the standard advice to protect themselves against COVID-19, report possible symptoms to their healthcare provider, and follow current guidelines for testing. Discussing their individual risk on a case-by-case basis with their obstetric team may be advisable.

DHHS ‘Factsheet for higher risk healthcare workers’

“The following chronic conditions are of concern in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 50 years and vulnerable workers over 65 years:

People at any age with significant immunosuppression include those who have:

Advice herein is adapted for the Victorian GP setting from available national and state guidelines. References can be accessed via the AMA Victoria COVID-19 information portal.

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