The spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus — the virus responsible for COVID-19 — is now anticipated to reach pandemic levels. Officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada reiterate that the risk of a mass outbreak in Canada remains low, but have encouraged and enforced precautionary measures.
Employers should continue to be vigilant in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace. In addition to our previous client alert, employers should be mindful of the following checklist:
1. Appoint one or more coordinators who will be responsible for tracking and communicating the latest developments of COVID-19. The coordinator(s) should have the authority to make or advise on emergency decisions such as office closures and meeting cancellations.
- According to the size of the employer’s organization, a cross-functional team may be necessary with designated individuals to handle issues such as employee health and safety, medical/personal leaves and accommodations, communications, and compliance.
2. Routinely follow reliable public health authorities for news and guidelines on prevention, symptom identification, and treatments as they become available.
Reliable sources include:
- Dedicated pages created by Public Health Ontario and the Public Health Agency of Canada, which provide updated information on COVID-19 spread and control measures in Canada
- The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for further information on the global spread, screening, and vaccination and treatment development
3. Review or develop emergency contingency plans with appropriate disease prevention measures.
- Contingency plans are designed to deal with business disruptions, and often include protocols for emergency communication, decision-making, and working with limited staff.
- Consider realistic and permissible cost-cutting strategies early on; be forward-looking as the economy braces for COVID-19.
- Employers may already have a contingency plan that is unique to their environment, but should be aware of best practices specific to epidemics.
- Common strategies unique to disease prevention can include:
- directing employees to contact their doctor and local public health units if they believe they have been exposed to COVID-19
- placing posters or flyers around the workplace that encourage employees to stay home if they are sick, and that outline best practices on hand hygiene, coughing and sneezing, and symptom identification
- providing tissues and hand sanitizer dispensers
- routine cleaning of frequently-touched surfaces, including countertops and door knobs
4. Where possible, expand leave and work-from-home policies that are flexible and non-punitive so that employees do not feel pressured to come to work if they feel sick or believe they have been exposed.
- Employers will be able to require this if they have objective knowledge, or a reasonably held belief, that an employee is displaying symptoms or has been exposed to COVID-19.
- As always, ensure that employees are aware of their benefits and entitlements in the event that they or a family member fall ill.
- In screening for infection risks, be cautious of the laws around privacy and human rights.
- For more information, review our previous alert on COVID-19.
5. Cancel or limit non-essential and work-related travel, especially to areas cautioned against by health authorities. Arrange for alternative methods of communication with business contacts in affected areas.
- Monitor the travel advisories in Canada and in other countries that the employer organization may have offices in. Follow reliable public health authorities for information on travel restrictions, including:
- Travelers returning to Canada from areas under advisory may be required to self-isolate and contact their local public health unit to report their arrival and/or symptoms. Any requirements to do so will be on Canada’s updated COVID-19 page.
6. Be aware of special reporting requirements for designated individuals under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act, and Personal Health Information Protection Act.
- Certain individuals may be required to report information on people they suspect have, or could have, COVID-19 to Ontario’s chief medical officer. This reporting obligation applies to individuals such as (but not limited to):
- regulated health professionals
- hospital administrators
- laboratory operators
- school principals
- superintendents of stipulated institutions
- Employers and/or employees who operate in these positions should ensure there are reporting protocols in place if applicable.
7. Document why and how certain measures are used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, and who was affected by them.
- Be mindful of cultural, medical, and other grounds when making decisions about disease prevention in the workplace. This includes how and who employers question about exposure to COVID-19, and how employers use information gathered.
- In all cases, ensure compliance with human rights, privacy, and employment laws.
For more information, review our previous alert on COVID-19.
E.g. HPPA ss. 25-29; PHIPA ss. 39-40.
Many thanks to Shira Sasson and Jan Nato for their assistance with this article.