OHS Canada Magazine

As monkeypox spreads, should employers be concerned?


Monkeypox is now active and spreading in Canada, with 26 confirmed cases according to the most recent data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Most of the cases are centred in Quebec, which is reporting 25 cases, but Ontario has one confirmed case as well.

The World Health Organization’s top expert on monkeypox, Rosamund Lewis, said this new health threat is unlikely to become a pandemic but remains a global concern as there are many unknown details about it, particularly how it spreads and how fast it is spreading.

“We are concerned that individuals may acquire this infection through high-risk exposure if they don’t have the information they need to protect themselves,” said Lewis.

The monkeypox virus is known to spread through close physical contact with an infected person, their clothing or bedsheets. With more than 250 reported cases in 23 countries – and on-going studies and discoveries about the disease – it may leave employers wondering about risks to their business, particularly as we’re just returning to normal following two plus years of COVID protocols.

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Jan Chappel, Senior Occupational Health and Safety Technical Specialist, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) reiterated the importance of keeping the workplace informed.

“Prevention is always key, so start by having plans in place to help navigate these situations. For example, conduct a risk assessment, and develop a business continuity plan. There are a few things workplaces can do to help minimize exposure. First, make sure everyone in the workplace understands what the virus is and how to minimize its spread.”

More sick time likely

According to Janet Candido, founder and principal of Candido Consulting Group, the impact to business will circle back to the likelihood that more sick time will be taken – whether paid or unpaid – and that the anxiety about a new virus lurking can develop disruptive behavior in employees, in turn “impacting everybody’s ability to get the work done.”

The workplace landscape shows that employers and employees have gradually adjusted to the new ways business is done – hybrid work, and mask requirements included. However, Candido noted there are still “a significant number of employees who are less enthusiastic about returning to work.”

“There are a few reasons to that, and the main factors remain as the fear of getting sick and the unwillingness to adjust what has been comfortable for them in the past two years. It’s both specific to fear and comfort level,” said Candido.

With the spread of the monkeypox virus, Candido said it is vital for employers to keep communication to keeping safety procedures in place and recognize that not everybody in their workforce is ready to come back to work “like it was 2019 again.”

“As an industry, we’ve all learned a lot from living with COVID,” said Paula Campkin, Vice President, Operations and Safety Centre of Excellence at Energy Safety Canada. “While not everything is within our control, we have seen the value of being adaptable, managing emerging risks and prioritizing health and wellness.”

Campkin points out that working through an infectious disease is not new, and what we’ve learned over the past two years still applies:
• Be proactive – Monitor local health authorities; update emergency response and continuity plans; and identify critical operations to support.
• Manage risk – Use hierarchy of controls and continue appropriate measures to minimize risk.
• Provide employee support and structure – Ensure ongoing communication, flexible working options where possible, mental wellness support, and expectations for behaviours and good working practices.

With that, employers can be guided to their next step amidst the monkeypox virus: maintain all measure that have been in place and find better ways to make it work for everyone.