OHS Canada Magazine

Focus on preventing spread of respiratory viruses in winter months

February 21, 2023
By Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Health & Safety editor pick flu sick days Virus

Photo: Adobe Stock

The early months of the year can bring about a refreshed and renewed focus for many. But these Canadian winter months are also marked by blustery weather conditions and the seasonal threat of respiratory viruses.

Many communities across the country continue to experience cases of respiratory viruses, including influenza (flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19. Most respiratory infections spread through prolonged close contact with someone who is carrying the virus. That’s why it’s important to help keep workplaces, homes, and communities safe by remaining focused on preventing the spread of germs.

Protecting workers is essential, not only for their physical and psychological well-being, but also to help keep workplaces open and operating safely. Both employers and workers can take precautions to help keep workplaces and communities safe.

Respiratory virus season affects thousands

Respiratory virus season typically occurs from November to April each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). There are, on average, 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths each year related to the flu specifically.

Since the beginning of this respiratory virus season, there were several weeks at the national level in which rates of illness related to flu and RSV were above typical levels expected for that time of year, according to Respiratory Virus Detection Reports from PHAC.


These viruses can affect anyone. However, some people are at higher risk of experiencing serious complications, including adults aged 60 and over, pregnant women, and people living with a chronic health condition. Risk factors can vary between viruses.

Assess the impact on your workplace

Respiratory viruses can have both economic and psychological impacts on workplaces and workers. For example, a business can experience disrupted operations if workers are away due to illness or if they must care for loved ones who are ill. This can lead to increased workloads and stress among workers taking on additional tasks, and in some cases, absenteeism can be especially disruptive to business continuity. Businesses and employers alike can experience financial impacts due to decreased productivity and missed work, respectively.

Several factors can increase the risk of spread at work. It can be challenging to remain physically distanced at work, making the risk of prolonged contact with someone carrying the virus higher.

Poor ventilation can affect workers indoors, especially if tasks involve physical exertion with increased breathing rates.

Congregate settings where large numbers of people gather, like schools and bunk houses, put workers at increased risk, particularly if compliance with public or workplace health measures is low, including low vaccination rates against the flu and COVID-19. Workers are at increased level of risk when more of these factors exist in the workplace.

To better understand the impact on your workplace, consider the characteristics of your unique work environment and workforce. It may be helpful to complete an updated risk assessment based on respiratory viruses. How, when, and where could workers be exposed and what factors might increase the spread?

Some key considerations include high traffic and shared work areas like building entry points, break rooms, and hallways. Job positions, including receptionists, cleaners, and medical workers, should also be assessed since the nature of their tasks can impact exposure to viruses. Also consider work factors, such as how often the job requires close proximity to others or working directly with vulnerable populations.

Personal factors, like whether workers take public transit or live in multi-generational households, as well as local community characteristics, including rates of respiratory illness and vaccination, are also among key considerations.

Update hazard controls

Once you have completed an updated risk assessment, update your hazard control program accordingly.

Consider including controls related to physical distancing, ventilation and air filtration, and screening. Review your cleaning and disinfecting procedures and remind workers about good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. In some cases, you may need to adjust your controls on wearing masks, using personal protective equipment, and getting vaccinated.

Protect your workers and workplace

The most effective measures control viruses at the source, followed by those along their path. The least effective measures protect at the worker level. But note that no single action or control measure is completely effective against all the different ways that respiratory viruses can spread. A layered approach that combines workplace health and safety controls with public health measures provides the strongest protection against exposure. With each added layer, the risk decreases.

Whenever possible, consider removing or replacing hazards with something less harmful. For instance, allow for remote work, facilitated through technologies such as teleconferencing, virtual meetings, and online forms. Limit travel if possible.

Consider engineering controls such as improving indoor air ventilation and filtration and installing physical barriers or motion-activated devices to prevent contact with high-touch surfaces. Adjust your furniture and workstation layout to maximize physical distancing. Offer contactless payment and other touchless or online options.

Changing how people work can also make a big impact. Clearly communicate administrative policies and procedures, rules, and risks. Ensure sick leave policies encourage workers who are sick to stay home. Consider staggering shifts, limiting occupants, and screening all workers and visitors. Create a cleaning and disinfecting program for high-touch surfaces and objects. Practice physical distancing, good hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette.

If PPE like fit-tested respirators, face shields ore gowns are applicable to hazards and activities in your workplace, train workers on how to properly use and maintain them.

Most importantly, creating a culture of safety and prevention can help ensure workers do not face any barriers when adhering to policies and procedures. Where possible, provide accommodations for people who are at high risk of severe disease or outcomes or are at high risk of exposure to respiratory viruses.

What workers can do

Workers can also take measures to protect themselves and others from respiratory viruses. One of the most effective ways is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu. Everyday preventive practices are important too. Practice healthy hygiene habits by washing or sanitizing your hands frequently and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or the bend of your arm, instead of your hand. High-touch surfaces and objects should be cleaned often.

Wear the highest quality, well-constructed and well-fitting mask available to you when indoors, even if you are not required to, especially in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces. When possible, improve ventilation by opening doors and windows to get outside air.

Workplace health and safety and community health impact each other, so choose lower risk activities whenever possible to reduce the risk of spread both at work and at home.

Stay informed and remain vigilant

Stay informed about the impact of respiratory viruses in your community as public health and government authorities in each jurisdiction continue to update guidance.
Everyone has a role to play in contributing to the organization’s safety culture, working towards prevention, and keeping each other healthy and safe. Remember not to let your guard down. Remaining vigilant and following protective health measures will help contribute to healthy and safe workplaces and communities alike, throughout the respiratory virus season.

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.


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