COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Update For Workplaces

COVID-19 (also known as the coronavirus) has had a significant impact on Canadian workplaces. It is a novel virus that has left employers and employees scrambling. We recently released an article containing answers to some frequently asked questions. That article can be accessed here. Since that time, additional information impacting the workplace has been provided by our governments. This article summarizes those changes and outlines steps that employers can take in the workplace to respond to the coronavirus. We recognize that changes are happening on an hourly basis and encourage you to contact us if you have any questions. We will be updating this blog as new information becomes available.

As a starting point, the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation requires employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers. This includes taking steps to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Employers are encouraged to prepare a business continuity plan, as well as a contingency plan, to use if the progression of the virus impacts your workplace. As the maxim goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

On March 12th, the British Columbia government announced that anyone travelling outside of Canada will be required to stay away from work and school for two weeks following their return to British Columbia.  The Government is also strongly advising people to avoid non-essential travel.

Employers are recommended to follow the advice of the provincial government. Workers traveling outside of Canada should self-quarantine for 14 days when arriving back in British Columbia. Workers are urged to consider cancelling or postponing travel outside of Canada at this time. Non-essential work trips should also be postponed.

Employers will want to consider whether workers can work remotely. This will (of course) not be possible in every workplace and every industry. Employers should also consider implementing directives limiting meetings and encouraging communications through technology. Although employers are encouraged to canvass the possibility of working remotely, employers must be cognizant of whether the remote work can be performed safely.

Part of an employer’s responsibility to ensure the health and safety of its workers includes ensuring that employees who are ill not attend the workplace. Employees who are ill or are showing symptoms of the coronavirus should be encouraged to stay home.

With respect to hygiene in the workplace, WorkSafeBC has published a guide outlining the steps an employer should take to control infectious diseases in the workplace. It can be accessed here. The guide does not address the coronavirus directly; however, it provides guidance on dealing with infectious diseases that are transmitted in a similar manner.

Although every workplace is different, practical steps that employers should consider include:

  • Educating employees on preventing the spread of infectious disease;
  • Increasing the frequency with which the workplace is cleaned, in particular high traffic areas such as boardrooms, lunchrooms, elevators, doorways and staircases (i.e., any place with a handle, button or handrail);
  • Encouraging workers to frequently and properly wash their hands. A poster that can be used in the workplace illustrating proper hand hygiene can be accessed here. A guide on proper hand hygiene can be accessed on the BC Centre for Disease Control website here;
  • Permitting working remotely where applicable;
  • Ensuring that employee medical information is kept confidential;
  • Considering limiting worker participation in large social gatherings (i.e., the provincial government has banned gatherings of more than 250 people);
  • Handling contaminated equipment and linens according to safe work procedures; and
  • Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields, masks, gowns if there is a risk of splashes and sprays of bodily fluids.

The Federal Government recently announced that it is eliminating the one-week waiting period for employment insurance benefits where a worker is quarantined as a result of COVID-19. This means that workers may be eligible for employment insurance benefits for the duration of the 14-day quarantine period.

With respect to childcare, the British Columbia government has not announced school closures. However, such an announcement (if it is made) will have a domino effect on employee availability in the workplace. We will update this blog if such an occurrence comes to pass.

Given the novelty of COVID-19, we encourage employers and employees to follow the instructions provided by our health authorities. Up to date information from the federal government can be accessed here and from the British Columbia government here.

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