Workplace Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The way we work is changing rapidly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workplaces are transitioning to working remotely. Social distancing and other measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19 have become priorities in the workplace. Employers and workers may be left wondering what their obligations are in these uncertain circumstances.

WorkSafeBC has published a collection of guidance for employers and workers to follow as they adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, we summarize and expand upon that guidance and discuss the rights of employers and workers in this unprecedented time.

Guidance for Employers

Limiting Attendance at the Workplace

Employers should first consider whether workers need to come to work at all. Employers should make serious efforts to curtail all non-essential work in the workplace and consider having workers work remotely from home.

Employers should ensure that workers do not come to work if they:

  • are ill, regardless of whether or not the illness is confirmed as COVID-19;
  • have an ill person in their home, regardless of whether or not the illness is confirmed as COVID-19;
  • share a residence with a person who has been exposed to COVID-19; or
  • have travelled internationally.

Workers returning from international travel must remain out of the workplace for at least 14 days after their return to Canada. Employers should communicate this requirement to workers clearly and take measures to ensure it is enforced.

Establishing Social Distancing and Other Preventative Measures

If workers must attend at the workplace, employers should prioritize social distancing. Social distancing means keeping 1-2 arms’ lengths between oneself and others. Steps to ensure social distancing takes place include:

  • reconfiguring the workplace to maintain appropriate distance between workers, if possible;
  • alternating or adding additional shifts to reduce the number of people in the workplace at any given time;
  • minimizing sharing of office space and work vehicles;
  • scheduling rotating coffee and meal breaks to avoid crowing in break rooms;
  • limiting worker participation in in-person gatherings by encouraging teleconferences and other means of remote communication; and
  • limiting worker travel.

Additional preventative measures that employers should consider taking include:

  • providing education to workers regarding health and safety measures that can be taken to prevent the transmission of disease;
  • increasing workplace cleaning and providing necessary cleaning supplies; and
  • reinforcing the importance of worker personal hygiene.

Health and Safety when Working from Home

Establishing Health and Safety Policies

Employers are encouraged to facilitate their workers working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers who are transitioning their workers to working remotely should prioritize the establishment of health and safety policies for working from home.

Such policies should require that workers conduct an assessment of their workplace and report any hazards to their employers. Other issues that employers should consider when developing a health and safety policy for working from home include:

  • protocols for evacuation of the home or other temporary workplace to a safe location if needed;
  • instructions for contacting the employer in an emergency situation;
  • discussion of safe workplace practices;
  • instructions for reporting any work related incidents or injuries; and
  • discussion of ergonomic considerations.

Employers are reminded that many health and safety protocols for traditional workplaces continue to be applicable to workers who work from home. Such protocols include:

  • reporting workplace injuries;
  • requirements for education and training; and
  • workers’ duties to follow safe work procedures.

Workers Working Alone or in Isolation

Employers have an obligation to check in with workers who are working alone or in isolation. Occupational Health and Safety Guideline G4.20.1 provides that “to work alone or in isolation” means to work in circumstances where assistance would not be readily available to the worker:

  • in case of an emergency, or
  • in case the worker is injured or in ill health.

Section 4.21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation sets out employers’ obligations with respect to workers working alone or in isolation. That section states:

  • The employer must develop and implement a written procedure for checking the well-being of a worker assigned to work alone or in isolation.
  • The procedure for checking a worker’s well-being must include the time interval between checks and the procedure to follow in case the worker cannot be contacted, including provisions for emergency rescue.
  • A person must be designated to establish contact with the worker at predetermined intervals and the results must be recorded by the person.
  • In addition to checks at regular intervals, a check at the end of the work shift must be done.
  • The procedure for checking a worker’s well-being, including time intervals between checks, must be developed in consultation with the joint committee or the worker health and safety representative, as applicable.

When selecting a procedure for checking a worker’s well-being, preference should be given to procedures that allow for visual confirmation of well-being. If that is not practicable, two-way voice communication at the work site or regular telephone communication may be implemented. The length of time intervals between checks should be determined with a consideration of the level of risk to which the worker is exposed. Higher risk activities require shorter time intervals between checks. For more information, see Occupational Health and Safety Guideline G4.21.

Guidance for Workers

Workers Who Must Not Attend Work

WorkSafeBC had mandated that workers must not got to work if they:

  • are ill, regardless of whether or not the illness is confirmed as COVID-19;
  • have an ill person in their home, regardless of whether or not the illness is confirmed as COVID-19;
  • share a residence with a person who has been exposed to COVID-19; or
  • have travelled internationally.

Workers returning from international travel must remain out of the workplace for at least 14 days after their return to Canada. Workers should ensure that they abide by this requirement.

Preventative Measures for Workers in the Workplace

If workers must attend at the workplace, they should take additional preventative measures, including:

  • complying with the employer’s instructions with respect to minimizing exposure to COVID-19;
  • washing their hands frequently and using hand sanitizer; and
  • taking steps to limit potential for exposure to COVID-19 while away from work.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control advises that healthy people should not wear masks as a preventative measure. Workers who have been exposed to anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 or a confirmed case of COVID-19 are encouraged to call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1 for an assessment.

Right to Refuse Work

Employers and workers should be advised 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. An undue hazard is an “unwarranted, inappropriate, excessive or disproportionate” risk, above and beyond the potential exposure a general member of the public would face through regular, day-to-day activity.

If a worker has been asked to carry out work that they believe poses an undue hazard to their health and safety, they must report their concern to their employer. An employer who receives such a report is obligated to investigate and remedy the situation. An employer may temporarily assign the worker to a new task, at no loss in pay.

If an employer, upon investigation, determines that the worker’s concern is not valid, the employer must report that determination to the worker. If the worker maintains that the situation is unsafe, the employer is obligated to investigate again, in the presence of the worker and a worker representative of the joint health and safety committee or a worker chosen by the worker’s trade union. If there is no safety committee or trade union at the workplace, the worker can choose to have another worker present during the investigation.

If a worker maintains that the situation is unsafe and the employer disagrees, the worker and the supervisor or employer must contact WorkSafeBC and a prevention officer will investigate and take steps to solve the problem.

Contact Us For More Information

Our Employment Law team is eager to assist you in understanding your legal rights and obligations as we adjust to changing work environments due to COVID-19. 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