With several confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Canada, Canadian employers should be attuned to their legal obligations and the potential impact of the outbreak on their workplace.

Employers have a duty to take every reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of their workers. This includes (1) putting measures in place that are needed to protect workers from infectious diseases, including the flu and coronavirus, and (2) informing and instructing workers to protect their health and safety.

Communicating with Employees

Employers should proceed with caution in overcommunicating about the coronavirus, which can cause increased employee concern and panic and potential practical problems for the employer. However, employees may ask what their employers are doing to protect their workplaces, and the employer may consider sending a notice to their workplace to communicate that they are considering the health and safety of their employees during this time.

In communicating with employees, we recommend the employer advise the following:

  • that the status of the coronavirus in Canada and any guidance issued by Health Canada and Canadian regulatory agencies related to the coronavirus outbreak is currently being monitored;
  • that there is no evidence that the coronavirus has entered the workplace (if this is in fact the case);
  • that health and safety precautions are being taken to reduce the risk of exposure to infectious illnesses, such as influenza and coronavirus, in the workplace (see our recommendations below for examples, which an employer should be prepared to communicate to employees if asked);
  • ask workers to take everyday actions to protect their health and prevent the spread of germs in the workplace. Such steps include:
  • washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and/or apply alcohol-based hand sanitizer, particularly after using the washroom, before eating and after touching common surfaces such as doorknobs, railings and telephones;
  • following personal hygiene steps such as sneezing and coughing into one’s sleeve/arm;
  • avoiding touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth;
  • avoid close contact with people who are sick;
  • minimize in-person meetings when a phone call or other mobile communication would suffice; and
  • stay home if one is feeling sick/talk to one’s manager about flexible work arrangements and sick leave.
  • advise that if someone begins to exhibit symptoms of coronavirus and/or has recently travelled to high risk coronavirus affected areas, to please email or call their manager to discuss working from home and/or taking time off.
  • advise that if anyone has any questions or concerns about the above, to call or email their manager or Human Resources.

Employer Steps to Increased Health and Safety in the Workplace

We recommend taking steps to increase the health and safety of the workplace, such as:

  • providing workplace hand sanitizer;
  • ensuring regular and thorough workplace cleaning;
  • ensuring cleanliness of surfaces in the workplace (door handles, elevator buttons, shared telephones);
  • maintaining good ventilation;
  • encouraging workers to say home when sick;
  • posting signs reminding workers to wash/sanitize their hands;
  • Sending a memo to all workers regarding preventative practices during cold and flu season, along with a reminder about speaking to their managers about flexible work arrangements when they are sick; and
  • ensuring sick leave policies are up to date and communicated to all workers.

If you have a reasonable basis to believe a worker may have been exposed to the coronavirus and is a risk to the workplace, strongly consider requiring them to stay at home to perform work. If that is not possible, strongly consider placing them on paid leave for a duration of time based on the most up to date medically recommended incubation period.

When taking actions against specific workers, employers should be careful not to discriminate against anyone in their workplace. While common ailments like a cold or flu have been held by the Human Rights Tribunal not to be disabilities protected by the Human Rights Code, imposing broad policies may put the company at risk of claims for discrimination based on race or disability (if the employee has an illness that would be considered a disability under the Human Rights Code).

It would also be prudent for employers to create a plan for work to continue in the event their workplace is closed down for a long period of time.