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While most people are likely already familiar with COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, as an employer you have a unique responsibility to develop sensible and safe policies to protect your workers. And though Canada has not seen the high number of coronavirus cases as in China, Italy, and Iran, there are precautionary steps that you and your HR team need to take.
What Should Employers Be Doing?
The first thing you should do is not panic. It’s best to remain calm, communicate, and promote best practices to help keep your workers healthy and your organization running. And while employers need to take extra precautions, the same, healthy habits you practise at home and in your personal life to protect your friends and family also apply to the workplace.
A Coronavirus Workplace Preparation Checklist is available at the end of this article for you to download for free.
Keep Workers Informed
It can be hard to know where to go for accurate, up-to-date coronavirus information. Luckily, there are organizations and government agencies to help keep your workers safe. Your best resources for accurate and current information are organizations like the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). You can find links to these and other reliable sources at the bottom of this article.
It’s your responsibility to share accurate information with your workers, including:
- Signs and symptoms of the coronavirus
- Prevention techniques including knowing when to seek medical care
- Your sick leave policy, work from home policies, and any temporary policy changes because of the coronavirus
- Where your workplace keeps hand sanitizers, antibacterial wipes, and facial tissues
You should determine the best way(s) to share information with your workers. For example, you can communicate information using some or all of these methods:
- In-person meetings, either one-on-one or in small groups
- Video conferences
- Email communications
- Posters displayed around the workplace—for example, on your health and safety board and in restrooms, kitchens, and heavily trafficked areas
You can also use this opportunity to remind your workers of where they can find policies including your health and safety policy and your sick leave policy.
It’s always a good reminder to practise effective hygiene etiquette. These healthy habits will not only help prevent the spread of coronavirus but also more common illnesses such as colds and flus. This includes:
- Hand washing for at least 20 seconds
- Maintaining at least one-metre distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing
- Coughing and sneezing into a facial tissue and if none are available using your elbow or shoulder
- Avoiding touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth
- Throwing away used facial tissues immediately
Require Symptomatic Workers To Stay At Home
It’s a standard best practice to encourage workers who feel unwell to stay home. Now is a great time to proactively remind your workers to stay home if they are exhibiting any symptoms of sickness. And if you have knowledge of an employee who is sick, you need to act to protect your workers within the laws of your jurisdiction. Base decisions on the most current advice from public health officials, and not on presumptions or stereotypes.
In Ontario for example, the Ontario Human Rights Council released a statement advising employers that:
“Discriminatory action against any persons or communities because of an association with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), perceived or otherwise, is prohibited by the Ontario Human Rights Code. The coronavirus is not isolated to people of any particular ethnic origin, place of origin or race.”
A person’s ethnic origin cannot be used as a reason to ask them to take time off. Employers can require workers to take paid-time-off based on recent travel to a region with a travel advisory related to the coronavirus. You should also review contracts as well as the particular laws within your jurisdiction. Read our FAQ about requiring workers to take time off.
Consider Work From Home Policies
Where appropriate, establish work from policies. And, staying at home doesn’t have to wait until your workers are already sick. Twitter, for example, is now “strongly encouraging” its workers to work from home if possible. If your organization doesn’t currently have a work from home policy, develop a temporary policy in case of a Canadian coronavirus pandemic.
Change Travel Policies
Companies such as IBM and Google have cancelled corporate events and restricted employee’s business travel. Out of caution, we recommend restricting all non-essential business travel outside of Canada until April. You should reassess your restrictions each week.
If you are not implementing blanket travel restrictions yet, you should regularly check the Government of Canada Travel Advisories for information on every region your workers are planning to travel to and follow the government’s recommendation.
Cleanliness is an important part of workplace wellbeing. While the CDC is not currently recommending any additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning, observe the following best practices in your workplace:
- Make antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizer available, especially in high traffic areas or shared spaces like conference rooms
- Provide facial tissues
- Clean and disinfect all frequently touched surfaces such as keyboards, phones, steering wheels, and doorknobs
Prepare an Emergency Response Plan (ERP)
Your organization should prepare for an increase in confirmed Canadian cases and the potential for a pandemic now. Depending on the nature of your workplace, you may need to temporarily shut down operations, relocate staff, manage high absenteeism rates, and more. You need strategies to protect your workers, as well as ensure continuity of your critical operations.
Creating an ERP is essential to prepare for an emergency. Organizations may already have emergency plans in place for fire, explosion, or extreme weather that can be applied to a potential coronavirus outbreak. You plan should include:
- Description of the emergency including how it may affect the workplace and workers
- Process of communicating the emergency to workers
- List of internal and external emergency response personal including contact details and responsibilities during the emergency
Who to involve in creating an ERP:
- Health and Safety and/or Human Resource Professional
- Senior Leadership / Management Team
- Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC)
Your Emergency Response Plan needs to include exercises and drills as well as address any gaps or areas that may require improvement. If you need help creating an ERP, contact us. We can help you create one from scratch or review your existing plan.
Presently, the risk of coronavirus to Canadians is low. However, this is an evolving situation with new developments emerging each day. We recommend your organization assign a point person to track the outbreaks in your province, region, and city via the Government of Canada’s or your provincial health body’s website, such as Ontario’s Ministry of Health website. With education, communication, and effective prevention, Candian employers can help ensure workers are healthy and safe.
If you think you may have come into contact with coronavirus you should contact your local public health unit or health care provider immediately.
Resources for Employers
Contact OSG if you need help creating or updating your policies
Download the Employer’s Coronavirus Workplace Preparation Checklist
DISCLAIMER: This is not medical advice. If you have specific medical questions, we strongly encourage you to contact your physician, health agency, and/or healthcare provider.
Baker Mackenzie, The Coronavirus: How Ontario Employers Can Prepare, 2020.
Ontario Ministry of Health, The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).
NPR, Coronavirus Cancellations And Travel Bans: Google Is Latest, 2020.
Twitter, Keeping Our Employees and Partners Safe During #coronavirus, 2020.
WHO, Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public.