PPE during COVID-19: Your rights

For many of us, COVID-19 has dramatically changed the workplace – including where, when and how we work. But regardless of these changes, one fact remains: you have a right to be safe at work.

While some workplaces are reducing COVID-19 risks by putting in place work-from-home arrangements, for many industries this isn’t possible. For these businesses, a variety of measures are needed to keep workers, their customers and the community safe.

For many workers this likely requires the introduction of wearing Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. So, what are your rights? 

What is PPE?

Personal Protective Equipment is clothing or equipment that minimises your risk of harm and injury at work. It includes things like earplugs, safety boots, hardhats and safety glasses.

In some industries, such as manufacturing and construction, PPE has always been a part of the job. However, the emergence of COVID-19, has seen an increase in PPE requirements – particularly face masks, face shields and safety gloves – in workplaces where it was not previously required.   

You have a right to PPE, and to ask for it if you need it

Understandably, many workers are concerned about protecting themselves from COVID-19 infection in the workplace. Employers have a legal responsibility to provide that protection, ensuring a safe work environment.

If you are required to wear a face mask (or any other PPE) at work, your employer must provide this equipment to you. And if you haven’t received – or been instructed to wear – PPE but you believe it’s necessary, you can ask your employer to provide it.

Your employer must:

  • provide appropriate PPE that fits, is clean, safe and effective.
  • have clear policies that explain how and when to use PPE and what your responsibilities are.
  • give you adequate training that covers things like when to use it and how long for, how and where to store it and how to safely put it on and take it off.
  • ensure you and your colleagues understand PPE training and instructions. If there are employees at your work who don’t speak English, your employer must take reasonable steps to help them understand. 

Staying safe at work during COVID-19

PPE isn’t the only way that workplaces should provide protection during COVID-19. Your employer should have in place a range of policies and procedures to ensure your workplace is safe. And, as an employee, you have a responsibility to cooperate and uphold these policies.

In addition to PPE, measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection may include:

  • physical distancing to ensure there is always 1.5 metres between workers
  • avoiding cross-contact between employees, wherever possible
  • adequate hygiene facilities, such as easily accessible hand sanitiser and hand wash stations
  • clear policies and procedures around how to stay safe and protect yourself and others.

Unacceptable customer behaviour causing additional workplace stress

For people working in customer-facing roles, COVID-19 is causing additional workplace risks. From verbal abuse and panic-buying to refusing to wear masks when required, a rise in unacceptable customer behaviour is causing added stress for workers and unsafe work places.

If you’re subjected to abusive, violent or unsafe behaviour at work, you have the right to speak up and to expect action. Under law, your employer can impose conditions of entry to keep you and your colleagues safe.

Your employer has the right to refuse entry to anyone who threatens the health and safety of you and other workers, such as an abusive or violent customer.

Compulsory face masks for Victorians

From 3 August 2020 all Victorians (with some specific exceptions) must wear a face mask when they leave home, no matter where they live. The right of employers to refuse entry to anyone making the workplace unsafe extends to this new law. This means, employers in Victoria can refuse entry any person who refuses to wear a face mask, without a lawful reason.

Once you receive the necessary training on how to correctly use your facemask, you must comply with your training. If you have any concerns about wearing a face mask at work – whether that be because of your safety at work or due to health conditions – you should speak to your employer.

What should you do if you feel unsafe at work?

If you don’t feel safe at work, or are concerned that your workplace isn’t adequately addressing the risk of COVID-19 infection, you should speak up as soon as possible. The same applies if you experience any issues or difficulty wearing a facemask or other PPE.

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your employer, or you have raised a complaints and no action has been taken, speak to your Health and Safety Officer and/or your union representative. 

RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Work related injuries

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Jenny Tran

Maurice Blackburn Dandenong
Jenny Tran is a Senior Associate in Maurice Blackburn’s Victorian WorkCover practice. She works in our Dandenong office and also sees clients in Cranbourne. Jenny was initially drawn to social justice issues by her own family experience with serious work-related illness. Jenny graduated from ...

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