During an infectious disease outbreak or pandemic, issues will include complying with mandatory closure of certain services, keeping the organization operational, and at the same time, protecting your workers. The workplace may be affected by staff absenteeism, shortages of supplies, and decreased numbers of customers.

Learn more about what the law says, tips for both employers and workers, and guidance on developing a business continuity plan so you can be prepared.

What the law says

Due diligence places a duty on employers to take all reasonable precautions to prevent incidents in the workplace. The general duty clause applies to all situations that are not addressed elsewhere in the occupational health and safety legislation.

For example, to reduce the effects of a pandemic, an employer may practice due diligence by:

  • Maintaining good ventilation.
  • Encouraging good hygiene, including hand washing and/or providing hand sanitation stations.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces where the virus may reside (door handles, elevator buttons, shared telephones, etc.).
  • Updating their sick or leave policies, and communicating the leave policies that will apply during a pandemic.
  • Encouraging employees to stay home when they are sick, or when they think they might be.
  • Allowing for employees to work at home, or create staggered shifts.
  • Establishing a policy where people with symptoms (including workers, contractors, and visitors) are not allowed access to the workplace.

It is very important that employers plan for a pandemic situation and let their staff know how absences from work will be managed. Leaves may also be possible through government initiatives, regular leave benefits, or through employment insurance.

Can employees refuse to work?

Employees have the right to refuse work if they have a specific reason and believe performing the work is dangerous to their or their coworkers' health and safety. This belief must be on reasonable grounds, and the employer is expected to attempt to resolve the situation.

Tips for employers

  1. Help protect employees by slowing the spread of the virus.
    • Allow employees to work from home where possible.
    • Provide good ventilation.
    • Increase the distance between workstations
    • Provide hand washing facilities and alcohol-based hand sanitizers in key places at the workplace (lunchrooms, washrooms, entrances, exits).
    • Ensure cleanliness of work surfaces including door knobs, hand railings, shared telephones, computer equipment, etc.
  2. Establish and communicate policies that let employees know what to expect in a pandemic, especially in terms of sick leave and leave to care for families. Make sure employees know that they can - and should - stay home if they are not feeling well.
  3. Develop a business continuity plan. Be sure to plan for employee absences as well as for increases and decreases in business trade, and for changes in how you do your business. Ensure all employees understand the business continuity plan, their roles, and the roles of specific staff as outlined in the plan.
  4. Plan for and provide adequate training. Ensure people are trained to cover the job duties of others, and that they are comfortable performing these added job tasks and responsibilities.
  5. Help people stay informed. Keep everyone informed of what you are doing and share any information from local or national public health officials.

Tips for workers

  1. Know the steps your workplace has in place for a pandemic. Ask if there is a business continuity plan. Find out what role you have in this plan.
  2. Participate in any training and education your workplace offers. During a pandemic, it will be essential for various employees to be able to cover some of the duties normally done by co-workers. Help train others to do aspects of your job as well.
  3. Know the leave policies your workplace has for sick leave, or for caring for your family. Knowing what options are available ahead of time will help you know what arrangements you need to make.
  4. Wash your hands properly and frequently (especially after using the washroom, before eating, and after touching common surfaces such as doorknobs, railings, telephones, etc.). Do not touch your eyes, mouth or nose as this helps the virus enter your body more easily. Follow personal hygiene steps such as cough etiquette to help slow the spread of the virus.
  5. If you are sick or think you might be, or if you have been in close contact with some who is sick, stay home. If you are at home ill or taking care of a family member, be sure to keep in touch with your workplace so they know what your situation is. Staying home when sick and hand washing are the most effective ways to help slow the spread of a virus.

Hierarchy of controls

Workplaces should establish control measures to reduce the transmission of the virus which may include:

Elimination (and substitution) - Allow workers to work remotely where and if possible. Assess the need to report to the workplace in-person on an individual or job role basis.

  • Individuals living with immunocompromising health conditions (including chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart or lung issues, cancer, etc.) or who live with individuals who are immunocompromised may need to continue to work remotely.
  • Use technologies to facilitate working remotely, such as teleconferencing.

Engineering – controls that are built into the workplace, such as physical barriers, ventilation, high efficiency filters, sensors or no- or low-touch mechanisms (e.g., taps, doors, garbage lids).

Administrative – controls that are used to limit a workers’ exposure by creating rules or procedures, such as limited occupancy, staggering shifts/teams, use of electronic communications, cleaning, sanitization, physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, work practices, use of screening techniques, etc.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – controls that use items such as masks, shields, face coverings, gowns, etc. This method is least effective because the hazard has not been removed, and PPE must be worn correctly. Note that non-medical masks are not considered to be PPE, but they can be used when physical distancing is a challenge.

Get the facts on masks

It is important to know that not all masks work the same way.

Respirators are designed to keep out specific agents (particulates, viruses of specific sizes, etc.). Respirators are certified and rated for very specific uses. It is essential to use the right respirator for the hazard that is present. For example, currently respirators classified as N95, N99, and N100 are recommended for protection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, when required. Learn more about respiratory protection against airborne infectious agents for health care workers.

Surgical masks work by keeping the large droplets contained when released from the wearer through talking, coughing, or sneezing. Essentially, surgical masks can stop large droplets from "going out" into the air. They are not fitted against the face to stop the wearer from inhaling agents. Surgical masks are not respirators and are not certified as such. They do not protect the wearer from inhaling small particles that can remain airborne for long periods of time.

Non-medical masks help limit the spread of droplets and spit when you sneeze or cough. Non-medical masks are not protective and are not considered to be personal protective equipment (PPE). When considering the use of non-medical masks, review the job tasks as well as any concerns that may be introduced by wearing the mask such as interfering with the ability to see or speak clearly, or becoming entangled in equipment that the wearer is operating. Also consider the individual’s ability to tolerate wearing a mask for an extended period of time.

Remember that just wearing any type of respirator or mask will not prevent the spread of COVID-19, nor is it adequate protection for the wearer, nor does it replace other personal practices (e.g., physical distancing, hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette).

What can a workplace do?

  • Ask individuals to stay home if they are sick or think they might be.
  • Promote physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette These measures include:
    • staying 2 metres (6 feet) apart
    • washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
    • covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, either by using a tissue or to coughing into your elbow.
    • using tissues to "catch" respiratory secretions and, after using, throwing the tissue into the nearest garbage can.
    • not touching your face (eyes and mouth), especially after you have touched surfaces such as doorknobs or handrails.

Employers should make sure that tissues (and garbage cans) are available for containing coughs, as well as soap/water for hand washing or hand sanitizers are available. Communicate the importance of these steps with all staff.