On May 19, 2020, Ontario entered stage one of the provincial government’s plan to gradually reopen the economy. A variety of businesses, including retail stores with street-front entrances, veterinary clinics, golf courses, marinas, cycling tracks and pet care providers, opened their doors to the public after weeks of closure. Although this is certainly a welcome development for many, it is not a return to ‘business as usual’ just yet. Businesses are expected to implement measures to ensure physical distancing and to take all reasonable precautions to protect employees and customers. This blog provides step-by-step guidance to assist employers in meeting their health and safety obligations under provincial legislation when reopening their businesses.
- Assess the COVID-19 Related Risks in Your Workplace
The risks presented by COVID-19 will vary for each workplace. To implement the safety measures that are appropriate for your workplace, it is important to first assess how your operations might increase a worker’s risk of contracting COVID-19. In making this assessment, it may be helpful to review what a typical workday looks like for each employee (or employee group) and consider the following:
- How many people does this worker personally interact with in the workplace? Are these individuals other employees, contractors or members of the public?
- Where is the worker’s physical workspace? Does it change throughout the day? Does the worker work near others? How much of the workspace is shared with others?
- Are there any “high touch” surfaces the worker encounters regularly?
- Does the worker share equipment and/or tools with others?
- Identify Additional Safety Measures that Can Help Mitigate the Risks
Once you have identified the risks posed by your workplace, consider what additional measures you can implement to address any identified risks. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) requires employers to take every reasonable precaution in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. What is a ‘reasonable precaution’ will vary depending on the nature of each workplace, however, following the directives of public health authorities is key. The provincial government has released more than 90 sector-specific safety guidance documents, which should serve as a useful starting point. These documents can be found here.
The provincial government recommends that businesses take the following precautions to minimize the risk of transmission in the workplace:
- workers should work from home, if possible;
- employers should ensure all high-touch tools and surfaces are cleaned regularly;
- employers should create greater distance between workers, keeping a distance of at least 2 meters from others, as much as possible;
- the number of passengers on elevators, stairwells and other tight spaces should be reduced;
- employers should give workers more opportunities to keep their hands clean, for example by providing soap and hand sanitizer;
- employers should ensure that workers are using any required personal protective equipment (“PPE”) appropriately;
- employee breaks should be scheduled at different times to avoid large groups;
- employers should remind their employees that if they are returning from abroad, they must self-isolate for 14 days and monitor themselves for symptoms, even if mild;
- workers should be reminded to stay home if they’re sick; and
- meetings should be held in outdoor spaces.
3. Develop a Reopening Plan and Share it with Your Employees
Once you have identified the risks and determined how you intend to address them, you should consider developing a ‘reopening plan’ that informs employees of the steps being taken to minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace and sets out any changes to existing policies and/or new policies that they will be required to follow upon return. These new policies might include how to safely interact with customers, steps to follow if they have symptoms of COVID-19, etc. Employees should receive training on any new safety protocols and on how to properly use any additional PPE.
The OHSA gives most employees the right to refuse work if they have reason to believe that the physical condition of the workplace is likely to pose a danger. Sharing your re-opening plan with employees will allow them to voice any concerns they have before returning to the workplace, which may reduce the possibility of a work refusal.
- Form a COVID-19 Task Force
Depending on the size of the workplace, you may also consider creating a ‘task force’ of employees to monitor all aspects of the reopening, including assisting with risk assessments, helping to develop, identify and implement workplace controls, and developing a contingency plan for responding to future workplace disruptions, such as an outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Disclaimer: As always, this post does not constitute legal advice and we would encourage you to seek professional legal advice from one of our knowledgeable lawyers before making any decisions with respect to your own case.