OHS Canada Magazine

Bracing for a second wave

Employers adjust to new normal in workplace operations


The current COVID-19 pandemic has completely overhauled business operations in Canada – and across the world. (recep-bg/Getty Images)

By Grant Cameron

In March, a sucker punch from COVID-19 knocked the wind out of the Canadian economy as much of the country’s commerce ground to a halt.

Today, business owners are dusting themselves off and preparing to get into the ring for another round. This, as the country itself braces for a second wave of the novel coronavirus.

To resume business operations in the middle of a pandemic, employers will have to get used to a new normal which includes lowering expectations, being flexible and — above all — making sure workplaces are safe for employees.

“Employee safety has to be paramount,” according to Laurie Jessome, partner in the employment and labour group at Cassells Brock and Blackwell in Toronto. “Employers must make sure that they are up to date on our best understanding of how the virus is transmitted and then apply that knowledge to their own workplace to ensure that they are taking every reasonable precaution to provide their employees with a safe work environment.”

“If your employees can’t work safely and you are faced with a COVID outbreak, productivity is impacted,” she said.

Generally speaking, it’s the employer’s responsibility to take every reasonable precaution to protect their workers, said Jessome, so they should review guidelines issued by their provincial ministry of labour.

“I recommend that every employer designate a key point person or team within their workplace to take the lead on COVID mitigation and planning. It is critical to ensure that someone is actually responsible for making sure that appropriate safety measures are considered and, where necessary, implemented.”

Seek input from workers

When putting together a reopening plan, business owners must be flexible and consider input from workers, said Troy Winters, senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa.

“I haven’t talked to a business yet that said, ‘We set a plan and never changed a thing and it worked 100 per cent,’” he said. “From dentists to hair salons and barbers, to municipal operations, they all set goals, started with a plan and made modifications once they received feedback from workers on how their jobs were impacted by the various control measures.”

“But the good news is that when they listened, while still keeping the key goals of infection prevention at the top of list, they were able to implement controls that allowed their business to re-open successfully with workers who felt confident about the safety of their work.”

While much of the country has opened up, employers still must be considerate to the needs of workers because many have lost access to supports and were shut off from family and friends for months.

“Combined with the added pressure of precarious employment, government subsidy plans ending and all the other factors that are weighing on people, I think we will start to see the effects of peoples’ mental resiliency being run into the ground,” said Winters. “While much of this isn’t under the employers’ direct control, employers need to recognize that some workers simply will not be able to maintain the same output.”

Consider expanding policy

To help — and ultimately keep their businesses operating — employers should adopt policies that permit workers to stay home with pay to care for a sick family member and abolish attendance-management programs, according to Winters, while workers who exhibit flu-like symptoms should also be sent home with pay.

Depending on the workplace, employers should consider engineering controls like installing barriers, changing furniture layout so workers are distanced and ensuring HVAC systems are running well, he said.

Further considerations include administrative controls, such as screening people who enter an office or worksite, and routinely cleaning all frequently touched surfaces such as workstations, elevator buttons and doorknobs.

PPE should be used as an added layer of protection when other control measures are not completely effective, said Winters, noting the placing of markers on the floor and setting hallways for one-way travel will limit unnecessary interactions. Disposable wipes, hand-sanitizing liquid and masks for workers close to each other are also suggested.

Mitigating workplace hazards

Employers must get a handle on what workers do day-to-day and task-to-task to mitigate all hazards, figure out the level of risk that is attached to the work and then put control measures in place, said Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ont.

“In general, you would want to quickly do a walk-through of the workplace. You want to think about how people do their work. So, not just where they sit but where they stand, where they walk to. Do you have a point where people collect — like a kitchen or a bathroom, a photocopier, cash register… and how you would help guide people to stay two metres apart in each of those situations.”

If workers must be at desks in an office or a cash register at a store, they must be at least two metres apart in all directions, she said, and if that can’t be done, other steps must be taken to protect workers.

For outdoor work like construction, it might be best to create small teams for workers who are on-site so they stay within their bubble, said Chappel.

Employer duties

“In general, employers have a duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace, so developing a plan is part of it,” she said. “Developing a return-to-work COVID plan is important. You want to make sure that people understand about the virus and steps that the workplace has taken to prevent the spread and what actions you need to take.”

“You want to do everything you can under the circumstances to implement your control measures, provide enough information, education and training, cleaning, disinfection and any personal protective equipment as well.”

When a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the workplace, Jessome says that employers should disinfect any surfaces that the worker might have touched and alert customers, clients and suppliers.

“If the employee in question has come into contact with co-workers, then you need to make sure you get a good understanding of everyone who may have come into contact with them and then let those people know.”

Grant Cameron is a freelance writer in Burlington, Ont.