Author | Photo Annie Spratt

What you need to know about staying healthy in the workplace

After months of coronavirus-related closures and in spite of the threat of exposure still looming, offices and other workplaces began to reopen as early as this past June. Though some employers have extended flexible working arrangements (including the option to work from home), unfortunately, not all are able to offer such latitude. 

If you find yourself re-entering the workplace and have concerns about your health and safety, you’re not alone. Many of us are navigating this transition and are naturally apprehensive about our wellbeing in these unparalleled times. Sound like you? Here are some things you can expect about returning to work during the pandemic.

The implementation of mandatory screening

Upon returning to the workplace, you’ll be screened for symptoms of COVID-19. Effective September 26 2020, it became mandatory for employers in Ontario to screen workers and essential visitors—including contract, delivery, and maintenance workers. In an article for Toronto.com, Peninsula Canada, a human resources and workplace safety consulting firm, offers clarification as to what employees can expect from these mandatory screening procedures. 

Screening involves asking workers and essential visitors the following questions every day before they have entered the workplace:

  • Are they experiencing new or worsening COVID-19 symptoms?
  • Have they travelled outside of Canada in the past 14 days?
  • Have they had close contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19?

If a person answers “yes” to any of the questions listed above, they have not passed screening. Employers should direct any workers and essential visitors who haven’t passed screening not to enter the workplace and to follow official public health guidelines, report their symptoms to their health care provider or Telehealth Ontario and self-isolate.

For more information on workplace screening, refer to this new screening tool via the Ministry of Health. Says Hope McManus, Head of Health and Safety at Peninsula Canada, “Failure to comply may result in steep charges for the business under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.” 

Though it is your workplace’s responsibility to conduct these mandatory screenings, these questions are also a handy tool to conduct your own self-assessment before you leave the house. Downloading the COVID alert app can also help you to do your part to keep yourself safe and limit the spread of the virus in your workplace. 

Amendments to health and safety standards

To adhere with social distancing requirements, once you’re at work, your workstations should be either six feet apart or segregated by physical barriers. Further health and safety amendments include temperature checks upon entry, revised policies for sick employees, intensified cleaning procedures, improved air filtration systems, and company-supplied protective equipment, such as masks and sanitizer. If you don’t see these things in place where you work, then the next section of this tutorial is for you!

What should you do if you don’t feel comfortable going back to work?

Sadly, compliance with the screening tool can’t ensure a COVID-free working environment, and by simply being in these enclosed spaces workers are at-risk of exposure. If you feel your working environment is unsafe, it’s important to know your rights.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employee can refuse to return to work if they can prove that their workplace is unsafe or likely to be unsafe. With that said, Katherine Lippel, a law professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Law, noted in an interview with Global News that it’s difficult to prove an unsafe working environment and that the burden of proof is on the employee..

For unionized workers—accounting for roughly 30 percent of workers in Ontario—Lippel recommends contacting their union with questions and concerns about an unsafe working environment. She also urges workers to seek personal legal advice to find out the best course of action for their specific situation.

If you have children and/or elders at home…

On June 12, Ontario daycares were permitted to reopen despite widespread reluctance. Childcare centres are a necessity for roughly 547,000 Ontarians, but if you’re not satisfied that reasonable standards for health, safety, and density are being met at your child’s daycare, you could have a strong case for not going back to work. If you have eldercare responsibilities, your case is even stronger. Once again, the burden of proof is on the employee.

Forging ahead, it’s important to bear in mind that the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. How employers maneuver the situation is largely in flux and stands to improve as time goes on. During this time of uncertainty, transparency is more important than ever, so if you have concerns about re-entering the workplace, voicing those concerns in an honest discussion with your employer is a good place to start. Know that whatever the outcome of that conversation may be, you have rights and they exist to protect you and your co-workers. 

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