COVID-19 Health and Safety in the Workplace: Back to Work Guidance for Employers

As British Columbia moves toward re-opening and many workers head back to the workplace, WorkSafeBC has provided industry-specific guidance for developing COVID-19 workplace safety plans. In this article, we focus on the guidance for small businesses.

WorkSafeBC requires that all employers have a COVID-19 safety plan in place. If a formal plan is not in place prior to work operations beginning, employers must develop one. WorkSafeBC has provided a template COVID-19 safety plan which may be of assistance to employers. WorkSafeBC will review plans of employers during inspections of workplaces. Pursuant to the order of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, COVID-19 safety plans must be posted at worksites.

Step One: Assess the Risk

WorkSafeBC sets out six steps for developing a COVID-19 workplace safety plan. The first step is to assess the workplace in order to identify areas where there is risk of COVID-19 transmission. This assessment process must include frontline workers, supervisors and joint health and safety committees or worker representatives, as applicable. Assessments should be ongoing after work operations resume to ensure identification and management of risk. Issues that employers should consider at this first step of the process include:

  • Where do people congregate in the workplace, such as break rooms or meeting rooms?
  • What tasks require workers to come into close proximity with one another or members of the public?
  • What tools, machinery and equipment do people come into contact with during their work?
  • What surfaces are touched frequently, such as doorknobs, light switches or shared tools?

Step Two: Reduce the Risk

The second step in developing a COVID-19 workplace safety plan is to implement measures to reduce risk. A primary method of reducing risk is to maintain physical distance among people whenever possible. Employers may consider:

  • Reducing the number of workers at the workplace at any one time by implementing work from home schedules or rescheduling work tasks.
  • Limiting the number of workers and members of the public in any area of the workplace at one time, by posting occupancy limits (for example, in elevators and washrooms) and limiting the number of workers in break rooms at any given time.
  • Implementing protocols to maintain a distance of 2 metres (6 feet) between workers and others whenever possible;
  • Creating pods of workers who work together exclusively to minimize risk of broader transmission in the workplace;
  • Replacing in-person meetings with conference calling and online messaging;
  • Eliminating all non-essential work travel;
  • Limiting essential work travel; and
  • Modifying work processes and practices to encourage physical distancing, such as instructing workers not to greet one another or customers by shaking hands.

Where it is not possible to maintain physical distance, employers should consider separating workers and/or members of the public with partitions or plexiglass. If other measures are insufficient, use of non-medical masks may be helpful.

Employers must ensure that measures for effective cleaning and hygiene are put in place and are reflected in their COVID-19 safety plan. Employers should provide workers with cleaning and hygiene supplies such as soap and water, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, nitrile gloves and garbage bags. Employers should also ensure that there are sufficient washing facilities available for employees. In addition, employers should:

  • Remind staff of effective personal hygiene practices and add signage to the workplace setting out personal hygiene best practices for customers who may come into contact with employees;
  • Remove shared items, such as coffee, water and snacks, in order to avoid cross-contamination;
  • Increase cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas, such as keyboards, light switches, door handles and cupboard or cabinet doors and ensure those engaged in cleaning have adequate training and materials;
  • Ensure all shared spaces are wiped down and disinfected at the end of each shift; and
  • Remove any unnecessary tools or equipment that may increase risk of transmission, like coffee makers and shared dishes and utensils.

Step Three: Implement Workplace Policies

Employers must implement workplace policies which address who can be at the workplace, how to deal with illness arising in the workplace and how workers can be kept safe in adjusted working conditions. In particular, these policies should reflect the guidance from the Provincial Health Officer and the BC Centre for Disease Control regarding self-isolation. Those policies should include:

  • A requirement that anyone who has had COVID-19 symptoms in the previous 10 days self-isolate at home;
  • A requirement that anyone under the direction of the Provincial Health Officer to self-isolate follow those instructions;
  • A requirement that anyone arriving from outside Canada or anyone who has been in contact with anyone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 self-isolate for 14 days and monitor for symptoms.

Other policy considerations include prohibiting or limiting visitors in the workplace and having a plan in place for what steps to take if workers begin to feel ill when they are at work.

Employers who have workers working from home must establish work from home procedures and policies to ensure worker safety. In our previous article “Workplace Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic” we discuss the obligations of employers who have workers working alone or in isolation.

Step Four: Develop Communication Plans and Training

Employers should implement training and documentation protocols for COVID-19 safety. Staff should be informed of and trained regarding changes that have been made to work policies, practices and procedures due to COVID-19. Supervisors should be trained to monitor workers and the workplace to ensure policies and procedures are followed. Employers should retain records of that training.

Occupancy limits and reminders regarding handwashing practices should be posted on signage throughout the workplace. Signs indicating who is restricted from entering the workplace (such as workers with symptoms) should be posted at main entrances.

Step Five: Monitor the Workplace and Update Safety Plans as Necessary

If new areas of concern regarding COVID-19 safety arise employers must take steps to update their policies and procedures. Workers should be involved in this process.

Employers must ensure that there is a process in place for workers to raise concerns about safety. In workplaces of 9 to 20 employees, this may be done with a worker representative. In workplaces of more than 20 employees, a joint health and safety committee must be in place and workers can raise concerns about safety through that committee. In workplaces of fewer than 9 workers, it is up to the employer to ensure that there are procedures in place for workers to raise health and safety concerns.

Step Six: Assess and Address Risks from Resuming Operations

In workplaces that have not been operating, there may be additional risks that arise from restarting business. In such cases, employer should consider:

  • If there has been staff turnover, if workers are being asked to adapt to new work roles or use new equipment or if anything has changed about the way the workplace operates, orientation and training should be implemented as necessary.
  • Workers may require time or training to refresh their skills after being out of the workplace for an extended period of time.
  • Risks may arise from processes required for starting up the business, such as restarting machinery, tools or equipment or clearing out systems or products that were left when the business was closed.

Additional Considerations

Employers are reminded that the Workers Compensation Act and the accompanying Occupational Health and Safety Regulations apply to all workplaces, whether employees are full-time, part-time, temporary or participating in the Work-Sharing program

When hiring temporary workers, employers should ensure that those workers:

  • Are not exhibiting any signs of sickness; and
  • Are not in violation of any mandatory self-isolation order either because they are waiting for COVID-19 related test results or because they have been travelling.

Temporary workers should receive regular new employee orientation in addition to training regarding COVID-19 exposure risks and prevention policies that are in place in the workplace. Consider retaining additional records regarding temporary workers, particularly if those workers are also working elsewhere. Recording the details of temporary workers’ other workplace may help employers to assess and mitigate potential risks.

Where employers are hiring foreign temporary workers, they must abide by the Government of Canada’s Guidance for Employers of Temporary Foreign Worker Regarding COVID-19.

Workplace safety is at the forefront of employers’ and workers’ minds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers are reminded that workers in British Columbia have the right to refuse work, without being disciplined by their employer, if they believe the work they are being asked to do presents an undue hazard to their health and safety. We discussed the right to refuse work in detail in our previous article.

Contact Us For More Information

Our Employment Law team is eager to assist you in understanding your legal rights and obligations as workplaces re-open. To find out more about how the WorkSafeBC requirements apply to your situation contact our Managing Partner, D. Rodney Urquhart.

Read more EKB Updates about the legal implications of COVID-19 and the impact on B.C. business