In recent weeks, we have paid close attention to government and media reports confirming new cases of a novel coronavirus originating from Wuhan, China and spreading to a number of cities and countries worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently declared a global health emergency as the outbreak continues to spread. According to recent reports, there are confirmed cases in Canada in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec.
While the public health risk remains low according to Health Canada, it is clear that the WHO and governments are closely monitoring the situation and taking precautionary measures to respond. In this climate, employers in Canada should also consider their obligations to protect the health and safety of their employees, particularly in the context of contagious illnesses. As many employers will recall, the legal obligation to ensure a safe and healthy workplace is expressly enshrined by applicable health and safety laws, and, therefore, employers should actively evaluate what timely and appropriate steps they can take for the protection of their employees.
To assist employers in facilitating and promoting a safe and healthy workplace, we have set out below some suggested “best practices” that employers may wish to consider when deciding what steps they need to take in response to the risks posed by coronavirus and contagious illnesses more generally.
- Stay Informed: According to Health Canada and other news reports, coronavirus symptoms are variable and may be similar to those of individuals experiencing a common cold or flu. Employers should know the “tell tale” symptoms, which can include fever, sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, body aches and other symptoms.
- Educate and Train: Employers should provide employees with, at minimum, a baseline of information with respect to coronavirus including common symptoms, ideas for basic hygienic and preventative measures, steps to take if illness is suspected and, ideally, suggestions for proximate health care facilities should an employee need to visit a health care professional. Concurrently, employers should consider providing re-training to employees on applicable health and safety policies and obligations in the workplace.
- Encourage Hygienic Practices: Where appropriate, employers should encourage employees to exercise reasonable hygienic practices. This includes, but is not limited to, frequently washing hands with soap and water, avoiding the touching of face with unwashed hands and covering mouth when sneezing or coughing. Employers may also want to consider providing employees with access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer and more frequent cleaning and sanitizing of common areas.
- Identify Potential Risks: Given the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, it may be prudent for employers to identify individuals who have recently travelled to China, and to Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea and other impacted areas as identified by the Government of Canada through updated travel advisories. Relatedly, employers should consider whether any employees have come into contact with other individuals who have recently visited those countries, and, as recommended by Health Canada, also consider re-scheduling non-essential travel to any of the affected areas until governmental authorities re-evaluate the risk. Employers should also consider implementing a self-imposed quarantine policy for employees coming back from travel to affected areas.
- Respect Individual Rights: While identifying risks is important, employers must also and equally ensure that they are complying with all applicable privacy and human rights laws. Employers should collect information required for business continuity planning in the least privacy-intrusive manner and take care to limit the collection of sensitive health information, obtaining consent where required. Further, subject to health and safety laws, employers should avoid identifying infected employees or those suspected of being infected. However, in the event that an emergency is declared, we may see public safety outweighing any privacy interests. Further, employers should monitor and address any workplace stigma directed toward employees and customers based on race, colour, national or ethnic origin from affected areas.
- Prepare for Work Refusals: Employers will know that under applicable occupational health and safety legislation, an employee may, in certain circumstances, refuse to work if he or she has reason to believe that there is the potential for danger or unsafe working conditions. Employers should treat any such work refusals carefully, reasonably and in compliance with applicable health and safety legislation.
- Accommodate Illness: Employees who come forward with possible signs of coronavirus or other illness should be permitted to attend medical appointments and, if appropriate, requested to stay at home to recover. In addition to the various leaves of absence available to employees under applicable employment or labour standards legislation, employers should be mindful of their obligation to accommodate employees’ disabilities, up to the point of undue hardship, and to make reasonable and appropriate inquiries when employees raise concerns regarding actual or potential illness.
- Have a Plan: While the risk of a pandemic in Canada is presently low, and we are not currently in an emergency situation, employers should develop a plan in the unlikely event that the situation worsens. Appropriate procedures will vary depending on the context, however employers should consider issues such as: how to quickly communicate necessary information to employees; implementing self-imposed quarantine for those coming back from travel to affected areas; restricting or limiting access to the workplace, for both employees and business visitors; considering alternative work arrangements and preparation of remote work policies, if possible; ensuring that staffing and operations needs continue to be met and whether appropriate insurance coverage is in place for employees (i.e. sickness/disability coverage); and to mitigate potential business losses.