VACCINES have never been more topical thanks to the long-awaited rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program across the country.
While we as farmers have always relied on vaccines for prevention of many diseases in our cattle and sheep, vaccines have long been used in humans too.
A question I am asked from time to time is ‘can I make my staff have a vaccination?’ The answer is sometimes.
In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine in the context of a farm workplace, currently it is not available to most categories of workers, and employers would not have valid grounds to insist it was done.
However, there are other vaccines, including the Q-Fever vaccine, that it may be reasonable to direct employees to have.
Work health and safety laws
THESE laws require employers to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of workers.
This requires employers to assess a risk and put in place suitable measures to eliminate the risk or if this is not practicable to minimise the risk.
What is reasonably practicable may change from time to time.
AT the moment, the COVID-19 vaccine is not available for the majority of Australians and there is currently insufficient evidence about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine on transmission of the virus.
It is therefore unlikely that a requirement for all staff to be vaccinated would be regarded as being a reasonably practicable measure at this stage.
It is therefore unlikely that an employer would be found to have breached their work health and safety obligations by not requiring employees to be vaccinated.
What we do know is that vaccine is only one of a number of measures to minimise the risk of COVID-19 infection.
There are other measures which we know are also effective such as mask wearing, handwashing and other sanitisation measures and social distancing.
Whether a measure will be sufficient to eliminate or minimise a risk is dependent upon the circumstances and whether the environment is a high-risk environment.
On the dairy farm, there are clearly times when social distancing will be difficult but there may be other control measures which can be implemented.
IT is accepted that ‘Q fever’ (Query Fever) is a known risk of working with animals on farm and is one which we as business owners can control.
One of the key control measures we have available to us is vaccination.
Unlike the COVID vaccine at this stage, the Q fever vaccine is a well-established, proven to work vaccination that is effective in preventing Q fever in many cases.
Therefore, it is expected by Worksafe that employers should have a vaccination policy in place for their workplace when staff are regularly handling animals.
This may include a pre-employment requirement for screening and vaccination, vaccination program for existing staff, and safe work procedures to otherwise reduce exposure.
ACCORDING to the MLA, leptospirosis occurs in cattle, sheep and goats.
It is caused by bacteria called leptospira and can lead to foetal abortions and stillbirths in the animals.
The disease is spread by urine from infected animals contaminating pastures, water and feed.
Infected animals can carry the bacteria for a long time and may not display any clinical signs.
It is a zoonotic disease that can infect humans, which makes is a workplace health and safety issue for farm workers.
Luckily, vaccination for lepto is very straightforward, and can be carried out on the animals only.
It is therefore imperative that a strict vaccination schedule (for 7in1 or similar) is followed for young stock, and a booster shot given to the milking herd annually.
Industrial laws – can I force my employee to have a vaccine?
EMPLOYERS are able to require employees to follow lawful and reasonable directions.
Whether a direction is lawful and reasonable will depend on the circumstances and the situation at the individual workplace.
The employer’s response under their work health and safety obligations is relevant in determining what is lawful and reasonable as are the terms of awards and employment contracts.
Employers should first consider whether there are other measures which can be taken in the workplace other than vaccination.
If employers wish to require employees to be vaccinated they should develop a comprehensive workplace policy in consultation with their employees and as a part of this consultation address any issues of concern that employees may have.
The policy should consider and address the limitations of other measures to control the spread of disease in the particular workplace and whether vaccination is an inherent requirement of the job.
Whether or not employers can enforce such a policy will depend upon the reasons given by the individual employee not to be vaccinated and the particular workplace environment.
Employers should seek legal advice before disciplining an employee or terminating their employment for refusal to be vaccinated.
One way of handling an employee’s refusal to be vaccinated would be to increase the protective equipment and clothing requirements for such individuals.
Worksafe recommend implementing the following controls; provide respiratory protection (P2 respirator), provide appropriate personal protective clothing (EG overalls/coat and rubber boots), encourage appropriate personal hygiene procedures and only allow the person access to the low risk Q fever work areas.
BOTH the Fair Work Act and the federal anti-discrimination laws are also relevant.
The Fair Work Act prevents employers from discriminating against employees and prospective employees on the basis amongst other things of pregnancy, religious belief or physical disability.
Conscientious objectors could also fall into this category.
Employees who object to vaccination on grounds such as these would have the right to bring an action against the employer if they are disciplined or have their employment terminated for refusal to be vaccinated.
Similar actions can be brought under the anti-discrimination laws.
All in all – tread carefully.
Best practice is to have the likes of a Q fever policy in place, which includes the offer of the employer to pay for the screening and vaccination.
However, each employee’s situation will need to be separately assessed, and if an employee objects to being vaccinated, then seek legal advice before proceeding with any disciplinary action.