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COVID-19: Considerations for Returning to Work

COVID-19: Considerations for Returning to Work
May 22, 2020

With the provincial governments in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec beginning to implement their plans to re-open the economy, employers need to be prudent in developing a return-to-work plan before resuming normal or phased activities. This includes creating a plan that mitigates potential risks, protects the health and safety of employees, clients and visitors and ensures compliance with all government orders, recommendations and legislation. Although this is a fluid situation and not all workplaces are permitted to resume operations in each of the provinces, there are several steps that employers can take to prepare to re-open their workplaces now.

Step 1: Gather information

  • Establish a taskforce of relevant stakeholders to develop and implement the return to work plan. This could include human resources personnel, health and safety representatives and unions reps, if and as applicable.
  • Review applicable provincial and/or federal legal requirements, directives and guidelines, if any, and monitor regularly for updates. For example, information can be found on the COVID-19 websites for Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, as well as Alberta’s website and workplace guidance for business owners directive. Seek legal advice if you are unsure whether a particular requirement applies to your workplace.
  • Review directives, guidance and resources published by the provincial—such as those in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia—and/or federal public health authorities and, where applicable, workplace health and safety authorities.
  • Review the federal government’s risk assessment tool, and any sector-specific safety guidelines, such as those published by the governments in Ontario and Alberta, by Workplace BC in British Columbia—such as its safe operations FAQ and employer guide—and the Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST)’s COVID-19 Toolkit in Quebec (also available in English).
  • Conduct a hazard assessment of your workplace under applicable occupational health and safety legislation and assess potential external risks, such as public transportation, childcare obligations, etc.

Step 2: Develop measures to mitigate identified risks at the workplace

  • Determine what personal protective equipment (PPE) may be required to mitigate health and safety risks, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and take steps to acquire the PPE. Each role within the workplace should be assessed individually as PPE requirements may differ depending on the employee’s position and risk of exposure. If the PPE is not readily available, seek alternatives and keep a record of efforts made to acquire the PPE. 
  • Consider a phased approach upon return to reduce density in the workplace and promote physical distancing. This may include allowing for continued remote working—where available, staggering hours or restricting an employee’s ability to work on multiple shifts or in multiple work locations.
  • Consider and make any adjustments needed to the physical layout of the office, such as workstations or production lines, to facilitate physical distancing. Consider installing physical barriers, or other floor markings to maintain distancing in customer-facing or high traffic areas. Develop protocols regarding exit and entry into workspaces, use of elevators or other common areas, and use of office equipment/supplies. Consider closure or modification of use for non-essential services or common areas within the workplace, such as lunchrooms, cafeterias, bathrooms, changing areas and gyms.
  • Develop sanitation protocols for additional cleaning of high-touch surfaces and consider the installation and maintenance of additional hand-washing stations. Post signage regarding policies and protocols for proper handwashing and hygiene etiquette.
  • Develop protocols regarding in-person meetings and other employee gatherings, attendance at work-related meetings and events outside of the workplace, and business travel. Consider prohibiting or restricting those activities where possible.
  • Review and update workplace health and safety policies, or create new policies, to address specific hazards related to COVID-19, such as physical distancing and PPE requirements. Any new measures being implemented should be clearly documented in a written policy. Employers should also ensure they meet any government requirements regarding the development and posting of COVID-19 related policies, such as British Columbia’s order directing employers to develop and post a copy of the safety plan on their website—if one exists—and in the workplace in a location accessible for workers and other visitors. WorkSafeBC has also developed a helpful tool to assist in creating an effective safety plan.

Step 3: Develop measures to address employee illness following return to work

  • Consider whether employee medical questionnaires and/or temperature screening are required, and develop policies and tools to implement screening, having regard to privacy considerations. Consider designating a room or area in the workplace for employees to safely isolate if they begin exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Adopt and implement a policy regarding employees’ duty to report travel, illness or experience of COVID-19 symptoms, diagnosis—actual or presumptive—of COVID-19 or contact with any other individual diagnosed—actual or presumptive—with COVID-19. The policy should clearly state that employees with COVID-19 symptoms are prohibited from attending the workplace, and that self-isolation and quarantine best practices for affected individuals will be enforced consistent with public health authority guidance and/or applicable regulatory requirements.
  • Adopt and implement a policy for communicating with all employees in the workplace if a worker confirms that they have tested positive for COVID-19 or presumptive positive, having regard to privacy considerations, and public health guidelines for self-quarantine for those who have been in close contact with the affected worker. Note that whether or not an employer decides to implement a telecommuting policy or full office/facility closure following the occurrence of such an incident will depend on a number of factors, including the size of the office/facility, the level of interaction of individuals within the office and the ability to continue core business operations on a remote basis.
  • Adopt and implement sick leave policies regarding any pay or benefits available to employees who are off work as a result of COVID-19, such as remote working, use of vacation and sick days, short-term disability insurance, etc.
  • Develop policies to ensure appropriate reporting to any applicable authorities, such as the Ministry of Labour and workers’ compensation authorities.
  • Develop a policy regarding return to work/office protocols after an employee has recovered or completed recommended period of isolation or quarantine.

Step 4: Plan and prepare employee communications

  • If applicable, prepare employee recall from layoff notices. Ensure notices comply with all statutory and contractual requirements. Recall notices should confirm the return to work date, any changes to the terms of the employee’s position or pay, and consequences of failure to return to work without a valid reason.
  • Ensure employees have received a copy of any new policies or procedures developed in light of COVID-19. Obtain the employee’s acknowledgement that they have read and understand the new measures.
  • Develop a process for addressing employee concerns—such as transit concerns, childcare requirements and discomfort with returning to work—taking into consideration human rights, accommodation and occupational health and safety considerations.

For further information, please contact a other member of our Employment & Labour group.

Please visit our COVID-19 Resource Centre to learn more about how COVID-19 may impact your business.