OHS Canada Magazine

Steps on making the return to work safe

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September 21, 2020
By David Reiter

Health & Safety Legislation COVID-19 Legal Return-to-Work

What are the reasonable precautions employers should be taking?

Reasonable precaution standards are beginning to emerge in the return to work process following COVID-19 lockdowns. (Chansom Pantip/Adobe Stock)

As summer ends and fall approaches, our thoughts are turning to familiar routines. Shorter and cooler days are here, and kids are going back to school.

Still — this fall is different. COVID-19 has upended all of our lives, and what once was familiar, now feels somewhat strange and uncertain.

As all of this starts to unfold, many employers are asking whether their workers can now safely come back to work? Based on the medical experts — it would seem the answer is yes, so long as reasonable precautions are taken.

So, what are the reasonable precautions that businesses should be taking, and how can they identify the particular steps that they need to take?

To be completely transparent — we are all learning how to do this for the first time, together. However, some standards are starting to emerge. They tend to focus on the development of safety plans that make use of tools such as policy and procedural changes, as well as engineering and administrative controls.


In our view, businesses can most effectively approach the problem by first identifying who needs to be considered in the plan, and second by identifying the various controls that need to be implemented to give effect to the plan.

Identifying who is involved

The process of developing a safety plan revolves around the people that it is meant to protect. They are the ones who will be performing the operations from which the risks stem from the work, and they are the ones that will need to comply with, and give effect to, its content.

As such, and given that the risk posed by COVID-19 is tethered to people’s exposure one to the other, the question has to focus, at least from the start, on who is involved and not on what is being done.

Depending on the facility, the range of people who need to be considered could be extremely varied.

For example, manufacturing facilities may involve operators, material handlers, engineers, shippers and receivers, office administrators and production managers.

Construction projects could involve safety representatives, contractors, suppliers, and pay duty officers, in addition to workers and supervisors. Retail stores and restaurants could involve cashiers, clerks, servers, stock people, greeters, and kitchen staff, suppliers and security personnel.

These are just a few examples of the different and varied individuals and roles that need to be kept in mind.

What precautions need to be taken

Once a business has identified who is involved in its operations, it needs then to turn to developing controls that will protect those people both with respect to the operations they are performing and with respect to the environment in which they are working.

Recognizing that, controls should include the use of everything from procedures and policies through to engineering and administrative controls.

For example, employers should:

  • Identify what touchpoints (through which exposure can occur) exist in the operational tasks in which their workers, and others in the workplace, are engaging. Once they have done that, the operational procedures should be revised, as may be appropriate, so that the risks are reduced or eliminated.
  • Consider whether policies can be implemented to control the risk of transmission between the workers, and others, in the workplace. For example, policies that limit worker interaction such as the staggering of shifts and breaks, and that limit the number of people in a workplace at any one time, may be helpful.
  • Look at whether the introduction of engineering controls such as physical separation barriers, directional controls on traffic, and the limitation or elimination of entry and exit points at the workplace can help to limit peoples interactions with one another.
  • Implement new disinfection procedures and hygiene-based educational programs, as well as other administrative controls such as screening at entry points and preparation of isolation rooms and exit procedures in case someone becomes ill. These can help businesses to further limit the opportunity for transmission of the virus at the workplace.

Other additional tried and true measures ought also to be included as part of these precautionary measures.

These would include, for example, the use of physical distancing and masks, the placement of limitations on meetings in the workplace, as well as the implementation of safe hygienic controls such as making handwashing and sanitizing facilities readily available, and creating sick day policies that encourage people to stay away if they have any symptoms.

All of these measures, should be tailored both for the workplace and for the work that the people are performing in it, and they should be communicated in clear simple language to the people who are, or may be, present in the workplace. They should also be monitored and enforced.

If these measures are taken, and modified and developed appropriately to particular workplaces, everyone’s eagerly anticipated return to work will have been made that much safer.

David Reiter is a partner with Aird & Berlis in Toronto.

This article offers general comments on legal developments of concern to business organizations and individuals and is not intended to provide legal advice. Readers should seek professional legal advice on the particular issues that concern them.


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