RTW and COVID-19: FAQ
As Canadian businesses begin to reopen the economy, many employers are seeking guidance regarding allowing healthy workers be at work, keeping workers safe at work, and managing ill (or apparently ill) workers once they have returned to work. The following items were put together to assist employers in managing return to work through the re-opening phase.
Can my workplace be re-opened?
Each province is providing specific direction on which businesses can be reopened and the date on which the business can be reopened. If your organization carries on business in multiple sectors, note that only the operations which are permitted to be reopened, can be reopened. Failure to follow the provincial government direction on re-opening for business could result in penalties and fines.
Where to start with the re-opening process?
Workplaces that are permitted to legally resume operations should review return to work guidance published by the federal and their provincial governments as well as those provided by sector-specific the health and safety associations.
Additionally, as part of re-opening the workplace, employers should re-examine their work methods and processes and put measures in place to limit the risk of transmission of the disease in the workplace. This means examining the work performed and determine how the work can be conducted while adhering to the public health directions and recommendations on physical distancing. Consider using a risk assessment approach based on a hierarchy of controls: elimination, substitution, isolation, administration, personal protective equipment.
What measures should be in place to deal with an ill/symptomatic employee?
It is recommended that processes and protocols be in place regarding how to manage ill or symptomatic workers displaying symptoms at work. Consideration must be given to pre-planning for circumstances suck as: where will a symptomatic person will be isolated until they can be transported from the workplace; designating a specific washroom that will be used by the symptomatic person; distance and path from, the location of the isolation area to a main entrance and to the designated washroom. Employers need to plan for an exposure in the workplace before their employees return to work en masse.
Should the workplace screen employees as part of the RTW process?
Employers may choose to screen employees as part of the return to work process. Some provincial governments have prepared forms to assist employers to screen workers as part of the return to work process. One such form is prepared by the Albert Health Services.
If you are creating an in-house form to screen employees returning to work, be careful to ensure that you are not seeking personal medical information, for example, diagnoses. Instead, rely on questions related to symptoms. A list of symptoms related to COVID-19 is provided by the Ontario Ministry of Health site.
Ontario has an online assessment tool, which can be used to assist in the return to work process.
How necessary is physical distancing in the workplace?
Physical distancing has been proven to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19. Employers need to ensure that employees returning to the workplace are able to effectively maintain physical distancing. This can be done by introducing measures and barriers (‘engineered controls’) to maintain physical separation between people (employee to employee; employee to customer, etc.).
Additionally, employers can introduce administrative controls to help separate people (for example, have employees in close proximity to each other work on different days or at different locations; staggered lunch breaks, etc. Finally, where physical and administrative controls are not sufficient, employers need to consider providing their employees with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, face shields, gloves, etc.
Where PPE is provided by the employer, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that the worker is properly trained on how to correctly use the PPE, including how to dawn the PPE, how to safely remove, clean or dispose of the PPE. A record of such training should be kept.
What if a worker presents with symptoms that may be related to COVID-19?
Many of the symptoms related to COVID-19 are similar to other non-contagious conditions. For example, a runny nose and cough may very well be related to seasonal allergies. It is advisable to enquire from the employee if the symptoms are “new” or if they have recently worsened, and if so, it may be necessary to have the employee be assessed by their attending physician who may be able to properly assess the symptoms and provide the employee with medical advice and if necessary, clearance to return to work. When in doubt, consider asking the employee to be assessed by an attending physician (or Nurse Practitioner based on jurisdiction) so that they can provide medical clearance to support the RTW.
As of May 14, 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of Health has updated its testing guidance so that anyone displaying at least one COVID-19 symptom should be considered for testing even if they are not tied to a priority sector such as long-term care, hospital or an otherwise vulnerable community group.
What potential challenges are employers likely to face as workplaces are reopened?
Dealing with COVID-19 in the workplace will be challenging for many employers on a number of fronts, including: incident reporting and case management, absenteeism related to the illness or needing to take care of family members and workplace accommodation to protect vulnerable employees. Employers need to focus on ensuring that have the appropriate policies and procedures in place to support their organizational needs, protect privacy and also to avoid potential claims of targeting or discrimination against identifiable groups.