Coping with the coronavirus

‘Employers have a general duty to take every precaution reasonable to protect workers’

Coping with the coronavirus

The 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that originated in China has reached more than 20 countries and affected thousands of lives. To date, there is still no cure for the virus, but researchers in different countries are working on separate projects to fight the disease.

Several organizations in Canada are offering tips on how employers can try to avoid and prevent the spread of the virus:

Practise due diligence

To reduce the effects of a pandemic, an employer should practise due diligence, says the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), by:

  • encouraging good hygiene, including hand washing
  • ensuring cleanliness of surfaces where the virus may reside
  • maintaining good ventilation
  • having up-to-date sick or leave policies that are clearly communicated to staff
  • encouraging employees to stay home when they are sick
  • allowing for employees to work at home or in staggered shifts
  • having a policy where people with flu symptoms are not allowed access to the workplace — this includes workers, contractors and visitors.

Due diligence is commonly addressed in health and safety legislation under the "general duty clause," says the PSAC, which requires employers to take all reasonable precautions to prevent injuries or accidents in the workplace.

For example, employers have a responsibility to provide appropriate training and education to employees. And workplace health and safety committees have a legal right to participate in the development of any workplace prevention and preparation strategies dealing with the virus.

Legal considerations
The same legal considerations that apply to employees who are unable to work due to illness apply to employees who fall ill or who self-quarantine as a result of potential exposure to the coronavirus, says Matthew Demeo, an associate at McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto.

“These legal considerations include obligations under employment standards, human rights, occupational health and safety, workers’ compensation and privacy legislation.”

While the spread of the coronavirus in Canada is far from a pandemic, it is important for employers to consider their policies, benefit plans, employment contracts, collective agreements and applicable legislation to ensure that they are aware of the potential legal consequences if the situation worsens, he says.

Demeo provides several tips for employers to prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic, including:

  • Consider introducing a policy requiring disclosure of employee personal travel to a coronavirus hotspot, including the province of Hubei in China and other largely affected areas. A return to work guideline that outlines whether employees returning from an at-risk-area will be required to absent themselves from the workplace and whether they will be eligible to apply for sick pay or be otherwise paid for time away from work.
  • Prepare for potential work refusals.
  • Establish (or re-activate) a pandemic preparation and response team
  • determining to what extent a business can operate in the event of an actual pandemic.
  • Assess staffing needs, including alternative work locations, overtime agreements, and alternative means of getting work done without direct human-to-human contact.
  • Determine obligation to permit employee to be absent from work to care for sick family members.
  • Review applicable legislation, policies and obligations to determine if employees are entitled to family responsibility and/or other legislated leaves to care for sick family members.
  • Establish a system for employees to report their status during a pandemic, including what information they are required to communicate (and how) to the employer and when they are expected to not report to work.
  • Ensure employee and employee emergency contact information is up to date.

High-risk sectors
Workers in some sectors (for example, health care and transportation) have a greater likelihood of exposure to viruses and other disease-causing agents, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

“Employers have a general duty to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from hazards in their workplaces. Employers in these sectors should already have effective plans in place for regular day-to-day interactions.”

When new viruses are identified, employers, in consultation with health and safety committees or worker representatives, should follow an appropriate hazard-assessment methodology that looks at the virus and considers if existing controls are appropriate, says CUPE.

“The goal of a prevention plan must be to eliminate exposure to the infectious virus as much as possible. The selection of controls should be guided by a hierarchy of controls and include both engineering and administrative controls.”

Engineering controls could include isolation wards, self-contained areas, and negative pressure rooms, along with proper ventilation with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration units and separate entrances and exits as well as triage areas in health-care workplaces, says CUPE.

Administrative controls could include an exposure control plan, the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), adjusting staffing levels to accommodate high rates of sick leave, limiting worker exposure to infected patients.

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