OHS Canada Magazine

How to protect your workplace from coronavirus

February 6, 2020
By Kristina Vassilieva
Health & Safety Human Resources Legislation Occupational Hygiene Coronavirus Employers Prevention Workplace

Employers can take precautions to prevent spread of illness

To avoid the spread of illness at work, employers should make hand sanitizers available to staff. (ThamKC/Adobe Stock)

The death toll for the coronavirus has risen to over 500, with over 24,000 infections worldwide.

The outbreak has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization.

In Canada, risk of an outbreak remains low, as infected individuals have been or are currently in isolation and are being monitored, along with suspected cases.

However, with a fifth suspected case announced in British Columbia on Feb. 4, employers may be wondering how they can protect themselves, their employees and their business.

Take precautions

There are several precautions employers can take to prevent the spread of illness in their workplaces.


The same measures can be taken as for a regular flu. Employers should advise their staff of correct hand-washing procedures, send out a communication regarding this and put up posters in the washrooms.

Additionally, employers should make hand sanitizers available to staff.

Workers should also be reminded to sneeze and cough into tissues and dispose of them immediately, or into their elbows or sleeves. If workers are experiencing symptoms of the flu, employers should encourage them to remain at home and to seek medical help if the symptoms worsen.

If working from home is possible, this option can be made available to employees to cause as little disruption to business as possible.

Know the rules

Before sending employees home, employers should be aware of their provincial human rights legislation.

Barring employees from the workplace without good reason creates risk of a human rights complaint from the employee.

“Employers must first determine whether their employee has recently visited China or has been in contact with someone who has recently visited China, and determine whether the employee is experiencing symptoms of the cold or flu,” says Ryan Wozniak, senior vice-president of legal and operations at Peninsula Canada, an HR and OHS consultancy in Toronto.

“If neither of these apply to the employee, they cannot be barred from working.”

Right to refuse work 

If an employee is refusing to work because they fear that they will come into contact with an individual of Chinese descent, employers should be aware that every employee has the right to refuse work they believe is unsafe.

In such cases, the employer must investigate and determine whether there is a reasonable basis for the employee to refuse the work.

If the employee asserts in bad faith that work might be unsafe — for example, an unreasonable desire not to work with individuals of Chinese descent, the employee may be disciplined for refusing the work.

In the case of coronavirus, employees are entitled to take steps to mitigate their risk of infection; however, an employee would likely have a difficult time demonstrating a level of risk justifying a refusal to work with individuals of Chinese descent since all health organizations have advised that the risk in Canada is extremely low.

Kristina Vassilieva is an HR writer for Peninsula Canada in Toronto.


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