Employers’ duties vary somewhat depending on the applicable law but Canadian occupational health and safety legislation across Canada generally charge employers to take every reasonable precaution and steps to protect the health and safety of workers from harm and risk. There is no single blueprint that could possibly address the risk for all businesses. Each organization, depending on the nature of its business, will experience a unique impact caused directly or indirectly by COVID-19. But COVID-19 is a workplace hazard and should be dealt with under occupational health and safety as such.
This obligation also applies to all situations that are not addressed elsewhere in occupational health and safety legislation.
Employers should apply due diligence, meaning the employer is considering, monitoring and doing everything that is reasonable under the circumstances to protect employees, customers and suppliers and avoid employee, customer and supplier exposure to the workplace hazard. When taking those steps, employers should involve his or her health and safety committee or representative. Certain occupational health and safety standard legislation require emergency preparedness plans and provide specific guidelines. Employers that fail to exercise due diligence to fulfil their health and safety duties risk liability – both corporate liability and personal liability of its directors, officers and supervisors.
To meet their obligations, employers should continue to monitor the development of COVID-19 and analyze whether employees could be at actual risk of exposure in their workplace and at work-related business and events. This includes taking reasonable measures to assess and identify existing and potential dangers to workers at the workplace and to reduce, eliminate or control those dangers, including through the creation of procedures to be followed.
What measures are “reasonable” will largely depend on the nature of the workplace, but could include, for example:
- Addressing sanitary practices— for example, because a communicable disease is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing, it is important to take precautions by asking employees to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze.
- Making infection control materials (such as hand sanitizer, tissue paper or other personal protective equipment) available in the workplace and instruct employees to use them regularly
- Advising employees to call in sick if they’re experiencing any symptoms or are ill
- Implementing social distancing (a term applied to certain non-pharmaceutical infection control actions that are taken by public health officials to stop or slow down the spread of a highly contagious disease). In practical terms, Using social distancing techniques to conduct as much business as possible, including telephone/video conferencing as well as allowing employees to work from home if feasible or work flexible hours to avoid peak public transportation times or crowding in the workplace. Rearranging workplace layout to minimize physical contact between employees is also a form of social distancing
- Ensuring appropriate cybersecurity/data breach protections and protocols and documentation of the arrangement in place when allowing work from home
- Removing employees from the workplace where circumstance warrant doing so
- Directing employees not to undertake business travel or cancel non-essential business travel. Should employees travel outside of Canada for personal travel, they should be advised that their ability to return to the workplace will be restricted and assessed upon their return to Canada.
- Regularly cleaning workstations and objects with disinfectants that are touched frequently, such as doorknobs, handles, elevator buttons, and railings. Workplaces are encouraged to increase the frequency of cleaning the workstation/worksite to two times per day
- Reminding staff to avoid sharing cups, glasses, dishes or cutlery, and ensuring cups/glasses/dishes/cutlery are thoroughly cleaned using soap and warm water after each use, or placed in the dishwasher for cleaning
- Impose self-quarantine methods with government guidelines if the employee is aware they have been exposed or come into contact with someone who has been exposed to the illness subject of an outbreak or pandemic
On April 17, 2020, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) announced that it has developed a series of pandemic guidance tip sheets available on the CCOHS website, These tip sheets provided guidance for employers and employees on work safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tip sheets are available for specific industries and sectors including construction, correctional services, daycares, healthcare, mining, retail, and transportation.