OHS Canada Magazine

A collective approach to COVID-19 prevention

Risks aren’t contained simply to work environment


Workers, such as grocery store employees, have different living situations that need to be considered in the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. (littlewolf1989 /Adobe Stock)

“There is strength in numbers.”

We often hear or say this phrase to describe the power and influence that a group of people can have over a situation.

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, this phrase can take on a whole new meaning.

Workplaces and workers have the opportunity to bring this phrase into their planning and actions, helping to answer: What would it look like if we all did our part to keep ourselves and our teams safe?

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Everyone has a role in controlling the spread

When it comes to controlling the spread of COVID-19, we each have a role to play.

To help reduce the risk of exposure, it’s important for employers to remember that risks aren’t just contained to the work environment. Every person who walks through the door — customers, staff, volunteers, etcetera — all contribute to the safety of the workplace.

While it may seem like a lot of variables to address, there are measures that employers can take or encourage to help facilitate a healthy environment.

Here are a few to get started.

Understand the variables in home environments

Every worker has a different living situation. Let’s look at a couple of staff members at a grocery store, for example.

Elena, a cashier, lives at home with her partner and two dogs. One might assume that because Elena’s household is so limited in number of people, the exposure risk is low.

However, Elena’s partner is a registered nurse who works at a retirement home in the city, caring for more than 20 seniors each day.

In the same store, we also have Peter who works at the deli counter. Peter works part-time at the grocery store and picks up shifts at the local butcher shop on weekends.

He lives with two roommates — one is a resident at a major city hospital, and the other is a full-time university student who makes extra cash driving for a ride share app.

Through each scenario, we can begin to see that the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is not just limited to workplace interactions.

In Elena’s case, the household isn’t limited to two individuals — it’s actually two essential workers who are exposed to hundreds of people a day.

In Peter’s living situation, there are multiple points of community exposure.

Each of these workers, and their respective roommates and partners, increase workplace risk — and not just for the grocery store. Each environment is now brought into the mix — the retirement home, the hospital, the university, and the general community.

These living conditions are not unique to grocery store employees. Workers in Canada live in all types of home environments.

This fact helps to illustrate how crucial it is for employees and workplaces to protect themselves, their workers, and the community through workplace policies and supports for workers.

Prevent the spread

There are many ways individuals can protect themselves, and in turn protect others, but all steps begin with knowing the facts about the virus and how it spreads.

COVID-19 commonly spreads from an infected person through respiratory droplets when you cough or sneeze, close personal contact like shaking hands, or touching something with the virus on it, then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands.

These methods mean that the virus spreads more when people are in closed spaces, crowded places, and when there are close interactions.

Symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear after exposure to the virus, which is why the following tips are so helpful to follow to prevent spread.

Daily check-ins: Prevention and care starts with checking yourself daily for symptoms of COVID-19. Common symptoms include a new cough or one that becomes worse, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fever, chills, and others. If you have any of these symptoms, even if mild, stay home.

Limiting contact outside of your immediate household: Every contact with a person outside your household increases your risk, so it’s important to be aware of possible exposures. You can download the free COVID-19 Alert app to help notify you of any exposures so you know if you should get tested. You can also confidentially report your case, which helps to track the pandemic and reduce the spread by identifying infected regions.

Physical distancing: When you’re out, keep a physical distance of at least two metres from others. Wear a non-medical mask especially when you cannot consistently keep two metres away from others, such as in crowded settings.

Wash your hands: Practising good hygiene remains vital to reducing the spread. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 per cent alcohol. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, and cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm or a tissue. Clean and disinfect frequently touched or shared surfaces and objects often.

Support a healthy workplace

Just as employees have a role to play in reducing the spread, so do employers.

Workplaces are responsible for ensuring their workers are safe at work, and this duty can start with developing a COVID-19 safety plan that can include a flexible attendance policy allowing employees to work from home, or stay home if they are sick, or need to care for a sick family member.

Workplaces can continue to support their workers by:

Communicating protocols and policies to workers: Ensuring workers know that their job is not at risk if they need to stay home is an important part of a flexible attendance policy. Supporting a healthy workplace through such a policy means actively encouraging sick workers to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19, even if they’re mild.

Updated your sick policy or introduced a new one? Let your employees know about the changes and how it impacts them. You can communicate the updates in a number of ways, including but not limited to: sending out an email, holding a meeting (virtual included), or posting a notice on a bulletin board. Whatever method you choose, make sure your employees will receive the information. For example, if you manage a grocery store, you can layer your approach by e-mailing, but also by putting a reminder notice on a bulletin board in the staff room and holding (physically distanced) team meetings before each shift.


TIP: Providing a designated contact, like a member of the health and safety committee, who can assist with any questions or concerns will also help workers understand what to do if they are sick or have had contact with a symptomatic person known or suspected to have COVID-19.


Implementing a screening protocol: Employers can use a screening questionnaire to help determine the presence of symptoms and ask workers to report if they have had a risk of exposure to COVID-19. A screening checklist includes questions about the presence of symptoms and asks whether a worker or anyone in their household has travelled outside of Canada within the past 14 days. If so, they are asked to remain at home, which means they may not be able to report physically to work. The checklist can be used in person, online, or over the phone to determine if a worker is fit for work or should stay at home.

Encouraging a clean and healthy workplace: Develop a plan to clean and disinfect touched or shared surfaces and objects often. Encourage workers to also clean and disinfect their personal work environments and provide them with disinfecting wipes. Post signs to remind workers and clients to follow safe practices. In areas where physical distancing is not possible, set up physical barriers such as Plexiglas windows. Workplaces should also provide increased access to hand hygiene facilities and make sure that persons with disabilities or other accommodation needs can access them.

By developing and participating in safe practices, and following advice from credible and reliable resources, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada or your local public health authority, we can all reduce the risk of COVID-19 for everyone in our workplaces and in our community.


COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an enormous amount of information has been communicated about the virus and how to keep ourselves and our workplaces safe.

Unfortunately, not all of this information is reliable. It might not be applicable to your specific workplace situation, or it could change as the pandemic continues to evolve.

Here are three questions to ask before using COVID-19 guidance information in your workplace:

  • Can the information source be trusted?
  • Does the information apply to my workplace?
  • Is the information current?

More information about COVID-19 fact checking: www.ccohs.ca/products/publications/covid19-fact-checking/


The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)  promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness.

This CCOHS Corner feature appears in the March/April 2021 issue of OHS Canada.