Who is legally liable if workers catch coronavirus whilst working?

As workplaces move to a work from home arrangement, it’s raised the issue of whether workers who catch Coronavirus while working from home are able to pursue workers compensation claims.

Employment law expert Bruce Simmonds says the answer is a yes but with conditions, and people working from home during the COVID- 19 crisis who catch the virus should not assume they are automatically guaranteed of compensation cover.

“An affected person needs to prove the virus was contracted during their employment, whether they are in an office or a home workplace, and this could get complicated if the virus is spreading within the community generally.”

Mr Simmonds, Litigation Director with Gold Coast firm Parker Simmonds Solicitors & Lawyers, says the rule book governing workplace health and safety liability is being hastily re-written.

As businesses implement survival plans to have staff work from home to minimise virus exposure, this has shone a light on workplace safety issues and who – if anyone – would be liable if a person working from home suffered an injury.

Mr Simmonds says while employers have a responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, the urgency of coronavirus precautions may mean they cannot physically inspect home work environments. It’s likely staff would be asked or expected to ensure their home work setups were safe.

Employers could use video technology such as Skype to look at home workplaces and evaluate possible risks.

“If a worker was injured at home, such as falling down stairs or contracting a virus, the workers compensation legislation varies from state to state.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, Queensland law states you can claim compensation for a disease sustained during the course of employment, whether this is at or away from the workplace, but employment has to be a significant contributing factor to the disease.

“This is where it may get complicated because proving someone is entitled to WorkCover because they’ve caught the coronavirus may be difficult. You’d need to show the virus was contracted during a person’s work time, but how do you separate that from private time if they are working from home during a coronavirus workplace shutdown?”

The severity of the effect on individuals could also affect any claim. Some people have only a mild case of the sniffles, others require hospital treatment while elderly and immune-compromised people could face death from the virus.

“Those who are fortunate to only get a very mild reaction to the virus won’t be able to claim any meaningful workers compensation.

“But people whose job involves close contact with coronavirus patients, such as nurses and other front line health workers, may have a stronger claim as they could well argue their job exposed them to a greater risk of contracting the virus,” Mr Simmonds says.

Common law claims may be possible if a worker could prove an employer was negligent and ignored safety measures and caused the worker to catch the virus. In these instances claims could cover compensation for pain and suffering, loss of wages and medical costs where applicable.

“Our compensation system is built around permanent or long-term consequences of an injury, but coronavirus seems to be a fairly fast illness for those only suffering mild symptoms. As such it’s not expected to be a source of significant claims.

“However there may be exceptions – especially if someone dies or suffers permanent impairment due to negligence by their employer. In these cases you might see some common law negligence claims lodged,” Mr Simmonds says.

“Fortunately the great majority of employers are doing the right thing to protect their staff but there are always a few that put their profits ahead of workforce safety and this is why we have a compensation system in law, to deter negligence,” he says.

Source: Dynamic Business

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