Update on facemask mandate in packing sheds – Queensland Health advice

The ABGC sought formal advice from Queensland Health regarding the application of the facemask mandate in packing sheds, in particular, concerns raised by some growers about the risk of workers overheating. 

The following is part of a response provided by Queensland Health of 21 January, 2022:

“Mask wearing is a high-impact, low-effort public health measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and a protective measure to slow the potential for transmission of the virus. With the increased transmission of cases in the communities across the state the wearing of masks may reduce the risk of cases and close contacts being identified in the business.

There are exemptions under the Public Health Face Mask Requirements Direction (No. 4) here, including:

– for whom wearing a face mask would create any other serious risk to that person’s life or health and safety, including if determined through work Occupational Health and Safety guidelines (example – a person who is undertaking work where a mask could become tangled in machinery). 

A risk assessment undertaken by the employer is expected to be carried out if relying on this exemption and the expectation would be that other controls in relation to excessive heat are already implemented. 

Note that the Work Health & Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHSA) places a primary duty on a person conducting a business or undertaking (owner) to, so far as is reasonably practicable ensure the health and safety of workers who are engaged or influenced by them.  They are also required to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable; and if it is not, to minimise them. This is a well-established and nationally consistent approach. 

In relation to this situation, if the employer or the employee considers that working in a hot/enclosed environment and having to wear a mask is a hazard to the extent that masks can’t be worn, clearly the employer has a responsibility to manage it as above. This will involve undertaking a risk assessment and putting in place effective controls (eg. not wearing a mask and seeking alternative solution). Worksafe Qld’s guidance on managing risk includes the keeping of risk assessment records. Please refer to WorkSafe Queensland for additional information for employers, see for example about planning for heat stress.

Note that if a person removes their face mask under an exemption, the person must resume wearing the face mask as soon as practicable after the circumstances of the exemption ends.

There is no requirement for a specific approval to be obtained by the employer if relying on the exemptions listed in the Direction but as stated above, records of how the risk assessment was conducted and what controls that will be used must be kept and if required, is expected to be shown to an emergency officer (public health).”