The lifting of COVID-19 restrictions doesn't mean workplace safety isn't still a concern
It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for many workers who have mostly been working at home during the pandemic. After multiple stops and starts over the past two years, many offices are re-opening and jurisdictions are either lifting or planning on lifting many restrictions. Some people are rejoicing in the end of restrictions and the opening up of the economy, not to mention returning to the workplace and seeing co-workers in person. But employers should be aware that some employees may still be a little hesitant.
While many restrictions are lifting and offices are opening up, it doesn’t necessarily mean the pandemic is over – in many cases, governments are referring to the need to live with COVID-19 and the virus isn’t going away anytime soon. There are still thousands of COVID-19 cases every day in Canada – in many jurisdictions, we don’t really have an idea of how many there are due to limited testing – so workplace safety should still be top of mind for employers. And they should also be ready in case employees raise safety concerns.
A recent survey found that just 12 percent of Canadian workers say that working fully at their physical workplace was ideal and three in 10 say they want to work remotely at least three days per week. More than four in 10 are likely to look for another job if their employer forced them to return to the office full-time, the survey found.
Obviously, some of the reasons for those sentiments are that people have gotten used to working from home and they prefer to avoid long commutes. But some of it may still be related to worries about COVID-19. A survey early in the pandemic found that more than half of Canadians would only feel comfortable with restrictions lifting to allow them to return to work when there were no new cases for at least two weeks or only sporadic cases. Although this was before vaccinations, at the time only 21 per cent said they would feel comfortable when there was a vaccine.
Those expectations seem a bit naïve these days – it’s hard to say when or even if cases will be that sporadic or negligible.
So there’s likely some nervousness among the workforces who have been gradually returning to the physical workplace. Employers can continue to implement safety measures, but what if there are employees who don’t want to come back?
In many jurisdictions, employees have the right to refuse unsafe work if they legitimately think that their health and safety is at immediate risk. Under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, for example, employees may refuse to work if they have reason to believe that “any equipment, machine, device or thing the employee is to use or operate is likely to endanger them or another employee; or the physical condition of the workplace or the part thereof in which the employee works or is to work is likely to endanger them.”
With regard to COVID-19, this could apply to a COVID-19 case in the workplace or if the employee is at high-risk if they contract the virus due to their age or a medical condition. Of course, vaccinations have mitigated these risks, but the Omnicron variant has shown us that there are no guarantees.
However, the employers may not need to be too concerned over the legality of COVID-19-related work refusals. Over the first three months into the pandemic back in 2020, the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development received notice of almost 300 work refusals but only upheld one. And in August 2021, the Toronto Star reported that just eight out of 482 work refusals in Ontario had been accepted.
Part of the reason for this is likely because a work refusal must be based on current conditions an employee is being exposed to. So concern over potential exposure to COVID-19 without direct evidence that it’s in a workplace probably wouldn’t be enough to support a refusal.
However, that doesn’t mean that employers don’t have certain legal liability. Occupational health and safety legislation requires them to take all reasonable precautions to protect employee health and safety at work – which means keep supplying that sanitizer and any necessary PPE. Masking and distancing requirements are lifting in many places, but it’s a good idea for employers to tailor their practices to the type of workplace they have and what’s going on with employees – such as keeping non-vaccinated and untested employees separate or requiring them to wear PPE, for example.
The pandemic has been a rollercoaster ride, and its hard to say if it’s over yet. When it comes to employee health and safety and managing their concerns, it’s good to stay on top of things. It might prevent things from going off the rails.