Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.
On June 16, 2020, Ontario released a Guide to help employers satisfy their responsibilities under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.
The Guide helps employers plan for work safety by putting controls in place as their workers return to work. It recommends that in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission at work, employers should:
- Screen workers;
- Support people with symptoms to self-isolate;
- Ensure people maintain a physical distance of 2 metres or more;
- Disinfect surfaces and objects;
- Support hand hygiene, particularly handwashing;
- Remind workers about good cough and sneeze etiquette and to avoid touching their face; and
- Work with the local public health unit in their community if any workers have COVID-19 or are exposed to someone with COVID-19.
The Guide recommends that employers use the COVID-19 safety plan template (provided within the Guide as a Word document) to create their COVID-19 safety plans. It further recommends that employers:
- Discuss and share their COVID-19 safety plans with everyone at work, including workers, unions (if applicable), supervisors, health and safety representatives or members of joint health and safety committees (JHSCs), contractors, and suppliers;
- Begin their activities relating to the creation, discussion and sharing of the COVID-19 safety plan before workers return to the workplace;
- Regularly check applicable sector-specific resources to prevent COVID-19 in the workplace for information and examples of controls and implement recommended sector-specific controls that may be applicable;
- Follow provincial orders under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and local public health orders; and
- Understand COVID-19 risks in the workplace.
The Guide further recommends that employers use appropriate control measures for their specific workplace in the following hierarchy of controls that moves from the most effective to the least effective control:
- Elimination (having all workers stay home);
- Substitution (not an option for an infectious disease such as COVID-19);
- Engineering controls (make physical changes to separate workers from the hazard, e.g., install plexiglass barriers to separate workers from customers, remove unnecessary doors that many people would have to touch), or support physical distancing, disinfecting, and hygiene); and
- Administrative controls (change how people work and interact via policies, procedures, training and signage, e.g., contactless curbside pickup, limit the number of people in a space at one time, stager shifts and breaks, new cleaning and disinfection protocols, education and training on proper hand washing).
Employers should also consider whether their safety plans might include provisions about personal protective equipment (PPE) (clothing to minimize exposure and prevent illness and infection, including surgical/procedure masks and eye protection), which should be used only after other controls have been carefully considered and all feasible options implemented. In doing so, employers should recognize that while public health officials recommend the use of face coverings (non-medical or cloth masks) in public, they are not considered PPE or an appropriate substitute for physical distancing in the workplace. Customers and other visitors to workplaces should be encouraged to wear them to help protect workers, however, and workers that choose to wear them should continue to practice physical distancing.
Additionally, employers should think through the following six questions in the Guide (also found in the template) as they develop their COVID-19 workplace safety plan, and consider the detailed recommendations provided in the Guide for how to respond to each question:
- Question 1: How will you ensure all workers know how to keep themselves safe from exposure to COVID-19?
- Guidance: Provide clear information and instruction via posting notices in common areas, emails, virtual team meetings and intercom announcements.
- Question 2: How will you screen for COVID-19?
- Guidance: Screen workers and others at the workplace and keep those who are symptomatic from entering the workplace; consider training those who will be conducting the screening; post signage with screening questions at entrances; encourage workers to self-monitor.
- Question 3: How will you control the risk of transmission in your workplace?
- Guidance: Maximize physical distancing and separation; where possible, have workers continue to work from home and meet virtually; reduce transmission from surfaces and objects; support good hand and respiratory hygiene; when engineering and administrative controls cannot be used to maintain physical distance, appropriate PPE should be worn consistently and properly, and workers should be trained on its care, use and limitations.
- Question 4: What will you do if there is a potential case of, or suspected exposure to, COVID-19 at your workplace?
- Guidance: Exclude symptomatic workers from the workplace; immediately contact public health for guidance and follow it; if advised that a worker tested positive for COVID-19 due to exposure at the workplace, or that a claim has been filed with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), give notice in writing within four days to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, the workplace’s joint health and safety committee or a health and safety representative, and union (if applicable); report any occupationally acquired illnesses to the WSIB within three days of receiving notification of the illness.
- Question 5: How will you manage any new risks caused by changes to the way you operate your business?
- Guidance: New risks may arise due to: changes to work practices and the introduction of new procedures to prevent COVID-19; plans and protocols adapted for COVID-19; remote work; the introduction of shift work or split teams that would normally work together.
- Question 6: How will you make sure your plan is working?
- Guidance: Assign a manager or management team to take charge; train supervisors and have a regular dialogue with them; use existing incident reporting systems; and schedule regular times to review the plan and its effectiveness.
Bottom Line for Employers
Employers in Ontario are encouraged to become familiar with the Guide and to follow its recommendations. By doing so and by using the Guide’s COVID-19 safety plan template to create their own COVID-19 safety plans, employers will be taking significant steps to satisfy their responsibilities under OHSA.