Many Canadians will recall the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003. Now, some 17 years later, we are faced with yet another highly-contagious and potentially deadly respiratory virus – novel Coronavirus. Having spread to more than 27 countries, the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency on January 30, 2020.
The media has been littered with stories about how to recognize the symptoms and warnings of potential risks. The question remains – what can we do to protect our workplaces?
While the world struggles to grapple with this novel and deadly emerging virus, employers can take the following steps to prepare and protect their employees and workplaces and limit their own liability:
- Ensuring company-wide best practices are up to date. Employers should maintain an up-to-date emergency contact list, provide hand sanitizer throughout the workplace, implement reasonable travel restrictions, and keep the lines of communication open about these practices.
- Confirming what resources are available to assist employees who may have contracted Coronavirus. Employers should confirm whether their group STD coverage will cover employees who are home sick with Coronavirus, home looking after a family member with Coronavirus and/or employees who may not have Coronavirus but who are in quarantine.
- Enacting temporary measures to protect employees.
- Because Coronavirus can be confused with the regular flu in some cases, in order to ensure that employees who may have Coronavirus do not return to the workplace and infect other employees, employers may want to consider insisting on a medical note from employees who have been home with the flu, confirming that they are safe to return.
- Employers may also consider implementing a temporary work from home policy.
- Employers may want to consider asking visitors to the workplace to confirm in advance whether they have had flu-like symptoms or may have had contact with individuals infected with Coronavirus.
- Understanding statutory obligations and protections. These protections relate to various considerations in the face of an outbreak:
- Employers will want to know whether illness or quarantine-related absences are protected pursuant to applicable federal or provincial statutory leave provisions.
- Employers will also want to be aware of their applicable federal or provincial statutory leave obligations toward employees who need to care for ill family members.
- It will be important to understand employee health and safety rights pursuant to Occupational Health and Safety legislation, which may include the right of employees to refuse to attend work if concerned about their health.
- Employers may want to refresh their familiarity with human rights laws which, among other things, prevent discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or disability.
- Having a plan.
- Employers may want to develop a plan for obtaining and implementing local health directives.
- Such a plan should also address who would be responsible for issuing communications from the employer and how the employer will communicate with its employees in the event of an emergency.
- In order to protect the work premises, the plan should include steps to ensure that the facility is secure in the event of a reduced staff or unanticipated shut down.
If you would like further information about the recommendations provided, the legislative protections in place in your region or practical steps to protect your workplace in the face of workplace health concerns, please contact members of our Employment and Labour Group.