OHS Canada Magazine

Work refusals, mental health among hot-button safety issues

Panel explores applied safety lessons learned during COVID-19


The current global pandemic has provided many lessons for occupational health and safety professionals, according to experts.

Work refusals, remote worker safety, management of anxiety, and health privacy issues have all come to the forefront as a result of COVID-19.

“A number of employers really are in hard times,” said Dylan Short, managing director of The Redlands Group, a boutique management consulting firm in Oakville, Ont., during a webinar hosted by OHS Canada.

“Economically, this has been a devastating year for a lot of Canadian businesses — large and small.”

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Keeping remote workers safe

Many saw their workforces begin working from home en masse in March — a situation that presented many unique situations for health and safety professionals, said Dan Black, an employment and labour lawyer with Caravel Law in Toronto.

“One of the questions that I get most often from my clients is: ‘Am I responsible for the health and safety of my employees when they’re working at home? That’s their home. Isn’t that their problem?’”

Rudimentary workspaces can lead to requests for ergonomic upgrades, and there aren’t always clear legal obligations in terms of what an employer must pay for, he said.

“There’s no clear obligation to provide your employees with that equipment,” said Black. “But it’s also clear that you are responsible for their safety when they’re working in their homes… If you’ve assigned or permitted your employees to work from their home, you as their employer do have an obligation to make sure that they’re safe there.”

In this area, providing clear guidance may suffice for employers, he said.

Managing work refusals

Work refusals are another issue arising as a result of the pandemic.

“You’re going to have employees who don’t really have a valid excuse not to report to work, but they’re afraid to come to work,” said Black. “Theoretically, you could discipline them for it. You could terminate their employment.”

But employers should take a “long-term view” of their relationship when these situations occur, he advised.

“This isn’t forever, we hope. And so, try and work with the employees… Let them know that you’re aware of what the risks are; let them know that you’re keeping up to date on what the public-health and other recommendations are; be clear in your communications about what is being done to protect them, so that you can try and gently encourage them to come into the workplace.”

“If you’re thinking about taking a hard-line approach with your employees, move carefully and then think about whether that’s really in your best interest as an employer in the long-term, as well.”

Empathy is an important consideration when discussing mental health issues through the duration of the pandemic. (Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock)

Managing mental health, anxiety

Empathetic conversations and providing flexibility in work relationships are important for workers to maintain mental health through COVID-19, said Elizabeth Horvath, manager of workplace mental health and Opening Minds at the Mental Health Commission of Canada in Ottawa.

“The pandemic is adding additional pressure onto people, whether they’re having to go out and do shopping and stand in lines, or you’re having to try and figure out how do I work at home with my children and my spouse,” she said.

“We’re seeing increases in anxiety; we’re seeing potential increases in depression — definitely people are having more concern over their mental health.”

Open, transparent conversations between employer and employees are beneficial through these times, said Horvath.

“When leadership is very transparent and open about their own feelings around the pandemic, and around even being in the workplace, that helps other people understand that they’re not alone in those feelings.”

Leading with health, safety

Health and safety leadership has been critical through the pandemic, said Manisha Mistry, senior director of occupational health, safety, environment and change management at the CSA Group in Toronto.

“Most successful organizations that are going to get through this on the other side with a different lens of their organization (are) the ones where the leadership has really shown that the value of health and safety is the most important priority for the organization.”

Consistent communication from senior leaders at the CSA Group has been of great benefit, she said.

This story was published in the November/December issue of OHS Canada.


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