Information to help workplaces manage COVID-19 - including whether employer vaccination or regular surveillance testing requirements are necessary.
Key points for businesses
New Zealand now has high vaccination rates and reduced risk of reinfection for those who have recently recovered from COVID-19. The Government has updated the COVID-19 Protection Framework based on the current assessed public health risk.
Employers should take care when considering measures such as requiring employees to be vaccinated or asymptomatic testing of employees for surveillance reasons. Employers will need to consult with their employees and should base their decision-making on the latest public health advice. We expect most workplaces will find these types of requirements difficult to justify as a first response for managing COVID-19—given current public health advice and settings. However, employers should determine this for themselves by completing a risk assessment with their employees. Circumstances can change, so employers must stay informed and be prepared to reassess their level of risk and the extent to which other controls can manage identified risks.
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About this guidance
This guidance is based on current public health advice and aligns with the Government’s COVID-19 requirements. It should be read in conjunction with information from Employment NZ relating to vaccinations and employment(external link), and WorkSafe guidance on how to manage work risks.
In this guidance, we refer to workers as employees because requiring (as opposed to encouraging) health-related actions such as vaccination or regular surveillance testing affect employment arrangements. The guidance is also useful for contracting or volunteer arrangements.
Employers can require work to be done in compliance with a wide range of COVID-19 controls/health measures.
Employers are encouraged to complete a risk assessment or review their existing risk assessment as New Zealand progresses through the current COVID-19 outbreak. Any significant change, such as a change in the Government’s COVID-19 Protection Framework, is a good reason for undertaking or refreshing a risk assessment. A risk assessment should never be carried out with an end goal in mind.
A risk assessment might identify the risk of contracting and/or transmitting COVID-19 at work is higher than it is in the community. In this context, the business might conclude that certain work can only be undertaken by a vaccinated employee for health and safety purposes. Similarly, it might also conclude that certain work requires regular COVID-19 surveillance testing of workers. It’s important to note that surveillance testing is not in itself a control for health and safety purposes.
Undertaking or reviewing a risk assessment
A risk assessment process involves an employer thinking about how things have changed in their business alongside any new public health advice from the Ministry of Health about COVID-19 and its variants.
When completing or reviewing a risk assessment, an employer must complete it with employees and their representatives. Specialist advisors such as health and safety professionals(external link) can provide advice for the workplace’s specific circumstances – this isn’t a requirement but can be helpful.
A workplace risk assessment must focus on the work and not the individual who does the work. While managers and staff can discuss and agree specific arrangements to deal with individual needs and circumstances, a workplace risk assessment must focus on the nature of the work—regardless of who is performing the work at the time.
A risk assessment must also only be based on health and safety at work. Reasons other than health and safety - such as a third-party entry requirement, for business continuity reasons, or helping track new variants’ entry into the country, are employment matters. Employment New Zealand has information about this(external link)
The Ministry of Health has confirmed(external link) that Omicron is now the main variant of COVID-19 in the community. This section contains public health advice provided by the Ministry of Health to assist employers when completing their risk assessment.
This variant spreads more easily than earlier variants but is generally less severe for most people - particularly those who are vaccinated and especially those who have received a booster dose.
New Zealand also has high rates of vaccination coverage and reduced risk of reinfection for those who have recently recovered. There is also much better knowledge and data about which environments are higher risk than others.
The public health justification for requiring measures such as vaccination or regular surveillance testing is stronger when the risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 at work is higher than it is in the community.
There are several public health factors that employers should consider as part of their work health and safety risk assessment process, to help determine whether the risk in the workplace is higher than that in the community. For a particular role:
- Is there a greater risk of the worker being exposed to new variants at work than they would be in the community?
- Does the worker regularly, as part of their work, interact with people who are at greater risk of severe illness(external link) should they contract COVID-19?
- Does the worker regularly interact with people who are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19?
- Does the worker work in a confined indoor space (of less than 100m2) and involve close and sustained interactions with others (i.e. closer than 1m distance, for periods of more than 15 continuous minutes)?
The starting point for employers should be the public health factors set out above. Employers may also consider other risk factors that are relevant and justifiable in respect of their workplace(s). Employers and their workers will have a good understanding and tolerance of these factors.
In deciding what controls to implement, employers will need to consider what is reasonably practicable. Employers should first consider the controls that are least intrusive to employees. Examples of controls that should be considered before requiring vaccination or regular surveillance testing and that work well in most workplaces are:
- other public health measures such as supporting workers to stay at home when sick, requiring mask use in some indoor settings, improving ventilation in the workplace, physical distancing, testing and basic hygiene practices
- reorganising work, for example working from home, requiring certain tasks be undertaken by workers who are already vaccinated, moving to providing some services virtually, or rearranging the work environment and the way that it is used so that physical distancing is possible and extended close contact with other people is minimised.
WorkSafe considers few workplaces will be able to justify vaccination or workforce surveillance testing requirements for health and safety or public health reasons. For those who can, this would likely be only for specific roles where the risk factors are high. However, as with seasonal influenza and other vaccinations, employers can and should encourage workers to get their COVID-19 vaccinations or boosters.
We recognise that:
- most employers do not have infection control expertise and rely on direction and advice from public health experts
- the pace of change in the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented when compared with typical risks to work health and safety, and
- for these reasons, it will not always be easy for employers to ‘get things right’.
Therefore, our expectation is that an employer:
- follows public health guidance when carrying out a risk assessment, and
- engages effectively with workers and their representatives, and
- regularly reviews the risk assessment as the situation changes.
Where an employer can demonstrate it has done these things, it is very unlikely that WorkSafe will take enforcement action, even if we disagree with the decisions an employer has made in their risk assessment. We will focus on helping an employer to understand what is reasonable to require in their circumstances and what they can act on.
The Ministry of Health has information about COVID-19 vaccines(external link) and public health information for employers(external link)
Unite Against COVID-19 has general information for employers(external link)
Employment New Zealand has information on employment requirements in relation to COVID-19(external link)