The Workplace "After" COVID: Communicable Disease Prevention
All Canadian jurisdictions have put measures in place to lift public health measures, orders, directives, regulations, laws and bylaws for good. These include the removal of mask use, physical distancing, proof of vaccination, daily screening at point of entry and isolation, among others. The public health measures are now set to turn into a personal choice and best practices to mitigate exposure and transmission.
Businesses and organizations are still scrambling to understand the implications of the lifting of these public health measures and navigating what this could look like for their workplaces.
Despite mandates ending, employers can still require their employees to follow health measures. Employers are generally permitted to retain their own policies for vaccination, masks, daily screening and physical distancing, among others. Businesses and organizations also need to understand that even with no public health measures or orders in place, employees are generally within their rights to continue health measures in the workplace, such as wearing a mask and physical distancing.
Take Reasonable Precautions
The pandemic still isn’t over.
There is still the potential for another wave or another contagious virus or communicable disease. No one can accurately predict the potential effect of another wave or virus or communicable disease and we may have to be prepared to resume public health measures such as mask use, physical distancing and daily screening, among others.
Also, while we see a removal of public health measures, orders, directives, regulations, laws and bylaws, employers across Canada continue to have obligations under occupational health and safety legislation to take all reasonable precautions in the circumstances for the protection of workers. Employers must remain diligent and flexible with prevention measures.
As restrictions loosen, the workplace will continue to have risks related to COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. Employers must continue to take steps to assess their risk in this changing environment to help prevent communicable diseases and take steps to eliminate or minimize the transmission of communicable diseases in the workplace.
A communicable disease is an illness caused by an infectious agent or its toxic product that can be transmitted in a workplace from person to person. Examples of communicable diseases that may circulate in a workplace include COVID-19, norovirus and seasonal influenza.
How to Decide on which Precautions to Take
For those employers wishing to continue or set up new organizational mandates through workplace policies, here are a few things to know beforehand.
The risk level related to COVID-19 and other communicable diseases at the workplace depends on the various job roles, workplace population, job tasks, staff vaccination rates, access by the public and workspace. For example, New Brunswick Workers Compensation Board stated that when assessing risk, employers need to ask themselves the following questions:
- How likely is it that workers could come into contact with people who have the virus, including other workers, suppliers, clients and customers?
- Are employees in the workplace interacting with the public? Is there public access?
- How do people interact in the workplace? Can physical distancing be maintained reliably? Do people wear masks when interacting?
- Is the workplace part of a vulnerable sector? Are employees in the workplace interacting with persons from the vulnerable sector?
- Is information on vaccination status of people interacting in the workplace available? Does a vaccination policy exist?
Employers must also consider whether an organizational mandate they wish to implement is a reasonable precaution, having regard to the specific circumstances of the business.
For example, if workers are public-facing or need to work in close proximity throughout the day, a mask mandate may continue to be a reasonable precaution. The potential impact of a future outbreak in the workplace may also push employers to turn to some form of mask mandate, for example, requiring a mask at all times except when working alone at a properly distanced workstation or requiring masks for group meetings.
Employers need to look at a Communicable/Infectious Disease Response and Business Continuity plan with accompanying policies and practices relating to workplace safety specific to a health outbreak, an endemic, an epidemic, a pandemic and a declared emergency.
Communicable disease prevention focuses on basic risk reduction principles to reduce the risk of workplace transmission of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. The fundamental components of communicable disease prevention include both ongoing measures to maintain at all times and additional measures to be implemented as advised by Public Health.
Ongoing Measures to Maintain
- Implement policies to support staff who have symptoms of a communicable disease (e.g., fever and/or chills, recent onset of coughing, diarrhea), so they can avoid being at the workplace when sick.
- Promote hand hygiene by providing hand hygiene facilities with appropriate supplies and reminding employees through policies and signage to wash their hands regularly and to use appropriate hygiene practices.
- Maintain a clean environment through routine cleaning processes.
- Ensure building ventilation is properly maintained and functioning as designed.
- Support employees in receiving vaccinations for vaccine-preventable conditions to the extent that the organization is able.
Additional measures to be implemented as advised by Public Health: employers must also be prepared to implement additional prevention measures as required by a medical health officer or the provincial health officer to deal with communicable diseases in their workplace or region, should they be necessary.
As previously stated, communicable disease prevention involves understanding the level of risk in the workplace, applying the fundamentals and implementing appropriate measures, communicating policies and protocols to all workers, and updating measures and safeguards as required.
Written Plans are No Longer Necessary
Employers do not have to write or post plans for communicable disease prevention or have them approved by the ministry of labour or workers’ compensation board. Some employers may benefit from documenting their plan to assist in planning and communicating their communicable disease prevention measures, practices and policies. Communicate measures, practices and policies, and continually evaluate and update the plan.
Employers need to be prepared to reactivate their COVID-19 safety plan in case of an outbreak or another wave of the disease.
Managing communicable diseases at your workplace is part of an effective Occupational Health and Safety Program.
Ontario: Living with COVID
The Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development has indicated that changes have been made to the requirements under the Reopening Ontario Act (ROA), which took effect on March 21, 2022. Updates to Ontario.ca have been made to reflect these changes and to remind workplace parties that there are still requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act for workplace safety.
The COVID-19 and the Occupational Health and Safety Act page has been updated to include changes to ROA requirements for employers regarding:
- safety plans
Also updated is guidance for employers regarding minimum standards for:
- assessing the workplace
- addressing potential COVID-19 illness or exposure at work
Also, individual employers may choose to continue requiring employees to wear masks, as employers continue to have a general duty to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers, pursuant to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
What is considered a "reasonable precaution" varies based on the circumstances of each workplace. Moreover, regardless of policy, individual employees may also choose to continue to wear masks in the workplace if they are more comfortable doing so.
As the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, employers should stay alert to any additional updates or changes leading up to April 27, 2022, which is the date all public health measures are lifted and the ROA expires.
Information on Ontario's vaccination plan and how it is being rolled out can be found here.