While no one can say when a pandemic will arrive, it is estimated that there will only be about 3 or 4 weeks between when human-to-human transmission of a new virus is confirmed, and its arrival in Canada.

During an infectious disease outbreak, issues may come up about how to keep the organization operational, and at the same time, how to protect your workers from the effects of illness. 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 ready ahead of time.

What the law says

Due diligence is commonly addressed in the health and safety legislation under the "general duty clause" which places a duty on employers to take all reasonable precautions to prevent injuries or accidents in the workplace. The general duty clause also 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:

  • Encouraging good hygiene, including hand washing and providing hand sanitation stations
  • Ensuring cleanliness of surfaces where the virus may reside (door handles, elevator buttons, shared telephones, etc.)
  • Maintaining good ventilation
  • Having up-to-date sick or leave policies. Communicate the leave policies that will apply during a pandemic flu.
  • 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.
  • Having a policy where people with flu symptoms are not allowed access (includes workers, contractors, and visitors) to the workplace

Can employees take time off?

Employment Standards Acts often state various ways in which an employee can take time off from work. In some provinces, these leaves include family care options that are typically for three to five days off of work. Whether this leave is paid or unpaid will depend on the collective agreements or contract terms for your workplace. Other options for longer terms are also explained. It is important to be aware of the various options that may apply, but it is also important to know that these rules can be different depending on where you live. For example in Ontario, in a declared emergency, employees are entitled to leave (without pay)

  • If an emergency has been declared under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act,
  • If an order to that person has been made under the Health Protection and Promotion Act
  • Because he or she is needed to provide care or assistance to a close family member
  • Because of such other reasons as made by the act and regulations..

More information is available at:

Leaves may also be possible through regular sick leave benefits, or through employment insurance.

It is very important that employers plan for a pandemic situation and let their staff know how absences from work will be managed.

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.

It is unclear how this right will apply during a pandemic. An employee can exercise their right to refuse work. This refusal would trigger a resolution process and prevention measures should be implemented. Exactly how the refusal is resolved, however, will depend on the workplace and each separate situation.

Tips for employers

  1. Help protect employees by slowing the spread of the virus.
    • Provide hand washing facilities and extra sanitizing gels in key places at the workplace (lunchrooms, washrooms, entrances, exits).
    • Ensure cleanliness of work surfaces including door knobs, hand railings as well as shared telephones, keyboards, computer mouse, etc.
    • Increase the distance between workstations
    • Provide good ventilation
    • Allow employees to work from home where possible.
  2. Have corporate 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. Have a business continuity plan. Know your business. 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. Provide for 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 as well as any information from local or national public health officials.

Tips for workers

  1. Know what 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 what "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 the right way, and at the right times (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. Have a home emergency kit, and a personal or family plan for a pandemic. Write down and post your family and work contact information. If you are at home with the flu, or to take care of a family member, be sure to keep in touch with your workplace so they know what your situation is. Also, let your workplace know if you have any medical conditions that may be an issue should you get sick at work.
  6. If you have the flu, or think you might, stay home. Staying home when sick, and handwashing are the most effective ways to help slow the spread of a virus.

Personal protective equipment

For most jobs (except those in health care), using personal protective equipment such as wearing a mask is not likely to be effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (in non-health care settings):

"Adults can shed influenza virus 1 day before symptoms appear and up to 5 days after onset of illness; thus, the selective use of masks (e.g., in proximity to a known symptomatic person) may not effectively limit transmission in the community. Instead, emphasis should be placed on cough etiquette for persons with respiratory symptoms whenever they are in the presence of another person, including at home and at school, work, and other public settings"

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and the United States Health and Human Services (HHS) also state that at this time, there has been little or no evidence that using a mask in the community will be protective or practical once the virus is circulating widely. Health care workers may be required to use appropriate masks when they have close contact with patients.

If you choose to wear a mask, PHAC cautions "members of the public may wish to purchase and use masks for individual protection. They need to follow other infection control measures such as hand washing to avoid a false sense of security." (From Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector (section 2.6)) However, masks may have some use if worn by those already infected with the virus in order to prevent them from spreading the germs.

Not all masks are the same

It is important to know that not all masks "work" the same way. Surgical masks work by keeping the large droplets "in" 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.

Respirators, on the other hand, 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 avian H5N1 virus, as a minimum, when required.

Please know that surgical masks and respirators are not the same thing. 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. For more information is available in OSH Answers about Respiratory Protection Against Infections for Health Care Workers

What can a workplace do?

Since we don't know exactly how the pandemic virus will spread, general recommendations for most workplaces and schools for infection control include to:

  • Ask individuals to stay home while they are infectious.
  • Promote respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette and hand hygiene as for any respiratory infection. This includes encouraging people to:

    • cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, by using a tissue or to cough into your sleeve
    • use tissues to "catch" respiratory secretions and, after use, to throw the tissue immediately into the nearest garbage can,
    • do not touch their face (eyes and mouth) after they have touched surfaces such as doorknobs or handrails.
    • wash your hands with regular soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects, and especially before handling or eating food.

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

When to wear PPE

At this time, it is thought that in most workplaces, PPE will likely not be effective or practical in containing the spread of the virus.

It will be important to stay current with announcements during the pandemic by agencies such as public health, or your local ministry or department of labour. Recommendations about the use of PPE will likely depend on the agent itself - how fast it spreads, the actual size of the agent, and how much of the agent you need to inhale before becoming ill. If the public health agencies or other governments departments recommend PPE, or if your workplace chooses to use PPE, it will be important to use the right kinds of PPE in the right way.

If PPE measures are required

If using personal protective equipment (PPE) becomes necessary, it is important to use PPE correctly.

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

  • engineering controls such as specific ventilation systems for capturing and reducing the spread of the infectious agent
  • work practices such as cleaning (tools, surfaces, etc.), hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette
  • administrative procedures such as screening, or social distancing
  • appropriate cleaning tools, equipment, and facilities
  • education and training on required personal protective equipment (PPE), its use, fit, handling, care and storage..

Should respirators, for example, be required in your workplace, it is essential to establish a complete PPE program which includes respirator fit testing, selection and care. See Table 1 below for a summary of possible protection types.

Table 1: Summary of Possible Influenza Protection Measures

Protection measure Where applicable
Hand hygiene, cough etiquette, ventilation Everyone, all the time
Organizational policies Every organization, all the time
Social distancing Everyone, whenever practical
Protective barriers In situations where regular work practice requires unavoidable, relatively close contact with the public
Disposable surgical mask(or respirator) Workers in any community or health care setting who are caring for the sick (this includes first responders) once the pandemic is in the community (WHO phases 4 and 5). Also as a possible adjunct to protective barriers.
Disposable surgical masks (or respirator), eye protection, gloves, gowns / aprons Health care workers participating directly in close contact patient care when there is a high risk of contact with respiratory secretions, particularly via aerosols (mostly inpatient settings). Generally, in-patient care within one meter or less.

Adapted from: Alberta Labour, Best Practice Guideline for Workplace Health & Safety During Pandemic Influenza (page 24)

Other personal protective equipment and procedures that may be required (currently recommended for health care settings) include

  • Use disposable gloves made of lightweight nitrile or vinyl or heavy duty rubber work gloves that can be disinfected. Gloves should be changed if torn or damaged. Remove gloves promptly after use, before touching non-contaminated surfaces.
  • Protective clothing, preferably disposable outer garments or coveralls, an impermeable apron or surgical gowns with long cuffed sleeves, plus an impermeable apron should be worn.
  • Wear disposable protective shoe covers or rubber or polyurethane boots that can be cleaned and disinfected.
  • Wear safety goggles that protect the mucous membranes of eyes.
  • Use disposable particulate respirators (e.g., N-95, N-99, or N-100) at a minimum level of respiratory protection.
  • Throw away disposable PPE properly. Non-disposable PPE should be cleaned and disinfected as specified in local or provincial guidelines (from departments of health or labour).

Also, remember it is important to wash your hands after removing any PPE. (Adapted from: Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Interim Guidance for Infection Control Within Healthcare Settings When Caring for Confirmed Cases, Probable Cases, and Cases Under Investigation for Infection with Novel Influenza A Viruses Associated with Severe Disease )

Be sure to follow guidelines for both wearing and removing PPE.