Five steps to reopening the workplace after COVID-19

Shop Window

COVID-19 Alert

By:

As the federal, provincial and territorial governments in Canada slowly ease COVID-19 related measures, ‎more workplaces are being permitted to reopen. Likewise, workplaces that have been permitted to remain ‎open with limitations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are being permitted to revert to business as ‎usual. ‎

Businesses preparing to reopen and invite workers and members of the public back to the workplace ‎must remain conscious of their obligations to take the necessary measures to protect the health and ‎ensure the safety and physical well-being of workers. In the best of times, those health and safety ‎obligations can be difficult to manage. Due to COVID-19, employers must be even more attentive and ‎mindful of their obligations.

The following “Five Steps to Reopening the Workplace” provide employers with the necessary tools to ‎assist them in preparing to reopen and tackle the various health and safety issues related to COVID-19:‎

Step One:  Review applicable government, health authority, and industry guidance

Determine whether the workplace can legally re-open, and what restrictions must be put in place to do so. Many provinces continue to have emergency orders in place to limit the permitted business activities undertaken by employers and to require certain workplaces to remain closed. Those emergency orders continue to be extended regularly. Some provinces, such as British Columbia, have implemented additional requirements for businesses to develop a COVID-19 Safety Plan that outlines the policies, guidelines, and procedures that have been put in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Other provinces, such as Ontario, have mandated workplaces that are permitted to open to follow the recommendations of public health officials. Health authorities continue to publish information to assist employers and workers to minimize risks of COVID-19 transmission. Industry associations have also released guidance documents to assist employers in identifying and controlling industry-specific hazards.

 

Consider whether vendors, landlords, owners, constructors, etc. have implemented additional measures, particularly in workplaces that are managed by a third party, such as office towers, shopping malls, commercial plazas, and construction sites.

Step Two:‎  Assess hazards in the workplace

Conduct a hazard assessment for COVID-19 transmission in the workplace. Consider the entire ‎path that workers will be required to take in order to report for work, including risks that may arise ‎from the commute to/from work, accessing/departing the workplace, and moving throughout the ‎workplace. Pay particular attention to circumstances that may result in workers coming into close ‎contact of 2 metres (6 feet) or less with another person.

Consult health and safety representatives/ committees, and seek input from workers. Across Canada, health and safety compliance is founded upon the internal responsibility system under which all workers have a right to participate in (and contribute to) matters of workplace health and safety. 

Consider any special circumstances of which the employer is aware that may present an elevated ‎health and safety risk to a specific worker or group of workers. For example, workers who are ‎immunocompromised or of an advanced age may be at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 ‎or experiencing more severe side effects, which may, in turn, warrant additional precautions.

Step Three:‎  Develop and implement measures to control hazards

Based on the assessment completed in Step 2, develop and implement the necessary measures ‎to remove or control hazards in order to protect the health and ensure the safety and well-being ‎of workers, customers, and visitors. Among other things, employers may wish to consider the ‎following:‎

  • Reconfigure the workplace to allow workers to spread out and avoid people coming into ‎close contact
  • Adjust scheduling to limit the number of workers working in small spaces and to avoid ‎mass arrivals/departures
  • Demarcate standing spots/distancing requirements in elevators, escalators, and ‎common areas
  • Purchase additional Personal Protective Equipment
  • Build or install physical barriers to prevent close contact
  • Discourage or cancel all non-essential activities, social events and in-person meetings
  • Remove all communal items that cannot be easily cleaned
  • Schedule regular and frequent enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace
  • Require workers to work from home (on a partial or full-time basis) if possible
  • Develop protocols for receiving and controlling visitors and customers in the workplace
  • Plan for what to do if a person in the workplace is infected by COVID-19‎

Step Four:‎  Communicate with workers, customers, and visitors

With the possibility of coming back to the workplace, workers may express health and safety concerns. ‎Customers and visitors will also likely have apprehensions about their health and safety when entering a ‎workplace. Effective communication can help ensure workers, customers, and visitors feels safe and are ‎informed with respect to the policies they must follow.‎

Based on the findings of the assessment and the hazard control measures that have been ‎implemented, create a policy for workers to describe and ensure the consistent application of ‎new safety protocols. Provide workers with training on that policy where practicable.‎

Inform workers, customers, visitors, and others about re-opening timelines, potential service ‎delays, and emergency contacts.

Post signage at entrances, exits and other conspicuous places through the workplace to remind ‎workers, customers, and visitors about the hazard control measures in place.‎

Again, consider any special circumstances of which the employer is aware that may trigger ‎further legal obligations. For example, employees with child care or elder care obligations may ‎have difficulty returning to work because schools remain closed and other care services may not ‎be available, in which case the employer may have a duty to accommodate the employee’s ‎circumstances on the basis of family status pursuant to applicable human rights legislation.‎

Appoint one person, or a small group of people, to answer questions and address concerns, ‎and direct all questions to that person or small group of people. Make sure that the person or ‎small group of people that have been appointed are prepared to address work refusals and ‎requests for accommodation.

After Step Four is completed, the employer may decide to re-open the workplace, keeping in mind the ‎previous steps taken.‎

Step Five: ‎ Continue to monitor

Governments are continuing to modify legal obligations and guidance in response to new information. ‎Medical health experts around the world are cautioning that COVID-19 will continue to be an issue for ‎many months to come. Employers must continue to monitor their health and safety policies, procedures, ‎and practices to ensure the continued health and safety of workers, customers and visitors. 

Evaluate policies, procedures, and practices regularly and assess whether they are achieving the ‎desired outcome. Revise where necessary to address additional hazards that arise.‎

If workers, customers or visitors are not complying with hazard control measures, respond ‎appropriately. This may require progressive discipline for employees, up to and including ‎termination of employment for just cause.‎

Monitor updated government, health authority, and industry guidance.‎

Respond to known incidences of COVID-19 among workers, customers, and visitors‎.

The Five Steps set out above provide employers with a useful starting place in the planning process for ‎re-opening the workplace and returning employees to work. Depending upon the nature of the employer’s ‎business, additional steps may be necessary. For further information, please consult our Coronavirus ‎Resource Centre or contact any member of our DLA Piper Canadian Employment and Labour Law ‎Service Group, who will ensure that you are acting upon the most up-to-date information‎

This article provides only general information about legal issues and developments, and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. Please see our disclaimer for more details.