As businesses slowly and gradually welcome returning employees back to the physical workplace across Canada, governments in various jurisdictions have published guidelines and recommendations on adopting and publishing a re-opening plan with the intent of welcoming returning employees back to the physical workplace, in a safe and healthy manner. Generally, guidance provided on such plans sets out what measures and precautions employers and service-providers must or should adopt to protect the health and safety of their employees and customers.
In this update, we provide some important information on some of the most notable requirements or recommendations made by public authorities in this regard, as well as resources on where employers can find out more.
In Ontario, the recommendations and guidance take on a more sector-specific approach, focussing on workplace policies.
For example, the Ontario government requires employers/constructors in the construction industry to post and communicate COVID-19 policies to employees and contractors or trades, addressing such areas as the site sanitization, the procedure for reporting illnesses, measures to ensure physical distancing, work scheduling and more. Another example would be the manufacturing industry, where policies should expressly address screening measures.
In Quebec, the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) has published a COVID-19 toolkit aimed at helping workplaces in all economic sectors implement the preventive measures set out in public health guidelines and guarantee that operations can resume or continue under the safest and healthiest possible conditions. It contains both general and sector-specific resources, including prevention guides, interactive and printable quick references, such as checklists, and posters.
Although they are not necessarily required to do so, employers are strongly encouraged to use and follow the various tools made available by the CNESST and to cooperate in this regard with their workers and, where applicable, health and safety committees, in order to put in place appropriate preventive measures. Indeed, if the workplace is not compliant with public health guidelines or if COVID-19-related risks are not addressed by the employer, a CNESST inspector may demand that corrective action be taken by the latter.
In addition, the CNESST recently published on its website a charter entitled Charte d’engagement à combattre le coronavirus en milieu de travail. All workplaces are invited to sign and post this charter as a symbolic commitment for both employers and workers, amongst others, to engage in the fight against COVID-19 in the workplace, to ensure that every effort is made to work in a safe and healthy environment and to work closely together in this regard. This charter may be signed online. Alternatively, it may be downloaded, printed and then signed.
It should be also noted that further tools to facilitate the implementation of health recommendations are also made available on the Institut national de santé publique du Québec website.
Lastly, where applicable, the employer’s written communications addressed to staff, including those communications pertaining to preventive measures put in place in the context of COVID-19, must be drawn up or initially prepared in French in order to comply with the Charter of the French language.
In British Columbia, employers are required to develop and publish, at the workplace and on their website, if applicable, a COVID-19 Safety Plan that outlines the policies, guidelines and procedures they have put in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. WorkSafe BC provides guidance (and a fillable PDF) for developing the plan, which generally involves assessing the risks at the workplace, implementing protocols to reduce the risks, developing workplace management policies, developing communication plans and training, monitoring the workplace and updating plans, and assessing and addressing risks involved in resuming operations.
One key aspect of developing the plan is to involve workers when assessing the risks at the workplace. With respect to adopting measures to reduce risks, the plan must generally target two areas — reducing the risk of person-to person transmission, and reducing the risk of surface transmission through effective cleaning and hygiene practices. WorkSafeBC prescribes that four levels of protective measures be included in the plan to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission, namely limiting the number of people at the workplace, installing barriers and partitions, implementing rules and guidelines, and requiring the use of masks.
While there is no requirement to develop a business re-opening plan in Alberta, the provincial government strongly recommends that businesses develop, implement and publicly post Relaunch Plans to address the requirements by the chief medical officer of health orders to:
- Implement practices to minimize the risk of transmission of infection among attendees;
- Provide procedures for rapid response if an attendee develops symptoms of illness;
- Ensure that attendees maintain high levels of sanitation and personal hygiene;
- Comply, to the extent possible, with this guidance, and any other applicable Alberta Health guidance can be found here https://www.alberta.ca/biz-connect.aspx.
The Alberta government suggests that businesses address the following in their Relaunch Plans:
- Communicating with attendees about COVID-19
- Mental health
- Quarantine and isolation
- Infection prevention and control measures, including eliminating hazards, substitution, engineering controls on isolating hazards, administrative controls on changing the employees work environment (such as physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, hand hygiene and respitory etiquette), and personal protective equipment
- Sector-specific guidance (further sector-specific guidance for developing a Relaunch Plan can be found here)
Federal jurisdiction (Canada)
In the federal sphere, while specific information on requiring or recommending that businesses publish a reopening plan relating to COVID-19 remains vague, there are some key resources relating specifically to the reopening of federally regulated businesses, as follows:
This latter states that “employers should review and revise business continuity plans as needed, prioritize key functions in the event of workplace absenteeism, and ensure emergency contact information is up-to-date.” In the federal sphere, business continuity plans have been adopted by a number of federal institutions and businesses to deal with emergencies in general (and not just COVID-19).
United States of America
South of the Canadian border, in the United States, occupational health and safety law is generally federally regulated by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which administers the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act).
There are also various state OSHA plans to be kept in mind. OSHA’s website has helpful guidance for preparing workplaces for COVID-19. Just like in Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic is largely viewed through the lens of the general duty clause of the OSH Act, as informed by guidance from the Centre for Disease Control and the OSHA.
For more American-specific information, please check out our global interactive guide on returning to the workplace here.
As businesses slowly welcome returning employees back to the physical workplace, different jurisdictions will have guidance or requirements relating to the adoption of business plans or policies to address and mitigate the associated risks. Employers would be well-served to ensure that they remain informed of the relevant guidance and requirements in the corresponding jurisdiction and industry sector, and take the necessary measures to develop such plans or policies to ensure the safety of the workplace.