Critical worker self-isolation exemption guidance

Last updated: 14 January 2022

Some critical workers who are close contacts are permitted to leave self-isolation to attend work, only if they have no COVID-19 symptoms.

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Who does the exemption apply to?

The exemption only applies to critical workers who are specified in the exemption, and who would otherwise be required to self-isolate for 7 days as ‘close contacts’ under the Public Health (Self-Isolation) Order (No 4) 2021 (the Order).

A worker will only be eligible for the exemption if their employer determines that:

a) their absence from the workplace poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities; and

b) they are unable to work from home.

Any worker who tests positive or who develops symptoms of COVID-19 must self-isolate. The apply to critical workers in the following sectors:

  • agriculture (biosecurity and food safety personnel undertaking critical duties)
  • manufacturing (production and manufacturing of food, beverages, groceries, cleaning and sanitary products)
  • transport, postal and warehousing (food logistics, delivery and grocery fulfilment)
  • emergency services workers and healthcare workers who are necessary for the delivery of critical services and who cannot work from home
  • utilities, which include electricity services, operation of energy systems, gas services, liquid fuels, water supply, sewerage, sanitation and drainage services and waste and resource recovery services (including collection, treatment and disposal services)
  • information and telecommunications
  • social assistance and welfare services
  • funeral, crematorium and cemetery services
  • seaport operations
  • air and sea freight and logistics
  • the operation of correctional centres and community corrections
  • a person employed by Resilience NSW, a member of Surf Life Saving New South Wales, Volunteer Marine Rescue NSW, or NSW South Wales Volunteer Rescue Association Inc.

Critical workers are exempt from clauses 7A and 8 of the Order, which require household and other close contacts to self-isolate for a period of 7 days from when they last had contact with the diagnosed person.

The exemption is subject to the following conditions:

  • Critical workers must only attend work if approved by or on behalf of their employer for the purpose of the exemption.
  • Critical workers must travel directly to and from their home and their workplace(s). They cannot leave home for other purposes.
  • Critical workers must wear a mask at all times in the workplace, unless eating or drinking or if the mask needs to be removed for safety reasons.
  • Critical workers must undergo daily rapid antigen tests (RATs) for a period of 7 days from when they last had contact with the diagnosed person, and must notify their employer of each result.
  • Any person who tests positive for COVID-19 following a RAT must immediately self-isolate for 7 days under clause 6 of the Order.
  • Notwithstanding a negative RAT result, if a critical worker develops any symptoms of COVID-19, they must immediately self-isolate and may only return to work with evidence of a negative PCR test taken after the onset of symptoms.
  • Critical workers must comply with any other reasonable measures put in place by their employer to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19 (see below).

Health risks associated with close contacts remain real and must be managed by the employer

A high proportion of household contacts will develop COVID-19.

A recent study from Denmark found 32% of fully vaccinated household contacts became infected with the Omicron COVID-19 variant. The risk was 25% among household contacts who had received a booster vaccine. The risk will be substantially higher in households where the case cannot isolate effectively.

Because household contacts are likely to contract COVID-19, they present a risk to others in the workplace and to business continuity.

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW), employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment and minimise the risk of workplace COVID-19 transmission so far as is reasonably practicable.

Employers should therefore implement measures to manage the risk of workplace transmission of COVID-19 from close contacts.

Steps for employers to consider in managing these risks within the workplace

Only those workers whose absence poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of a critical service or activity will be eligible for the exemption.

This means that close contacts may only attend work if the delivery of critical services may be compromised by their absence.

  • All people in the workplace should wear masks except while eating or drinking or where a mask could create a safety issue.
  • Household contacts should not be permitted to use shared facilities such as tea rooms at the same time as other people.
  • Where possible, household contacts should be allocated work that involves minimal interaction with other people.
  • Household contacts should be encouraged to maintain physical distance from others at all times.
  • Where possible, household contacts should be assigned to work in well-ventilated areas or outdoors.
  • Employers should strongly encourage or, if lawful and reasonable, direct employees to receive a booster vaccination against COVID-19.
  • Ensure COVID safe plans reflecting these and other measures are signed off by or on behalf of the employer.


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