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Jun 18, 2020

Returning To Work After COVID-19: Part 1

After months of shutdowns, remote work, and physical distancing, provincial governments in Canada are beginning the process of relaxing restrictions and reopening businesses. As more employees are called back to work, employers must consider how to safely and properly enable employees to return to work.

There are a number of issues that employers will face when deciding when and how to recall employees to work. This article will help to outline these issues and provide some guidance for employers they make decisions and develop return to work plans.

Can My Workplace Legally Reopen?

The first and most obvious consideration is whether or not your workplace can legally open. The relaxing of restrictions is intended to be very gradual and the timing of reopening will vary from industry to industry. Employers will need to pay close attention to which closure orders are lifted and when their specific business is eligible to resume operations by referring to the Government of Ontario Framework for Reopening. Failure to comply with closure orders can result in a fine of up to $10,000,000.00 for a corporation, as well as personal liability for directors or officers in the form of a fine of up to $500,000.00.

An equally important factor is whether your workplace can be reopened in a manner that complies with an employer’s duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. Employers are expected to take adequate steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace; failure to do so may result in significant fines and/or civil liability. 

Assessing the Risk

The general steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are well- known: 

  • Engage in physical distancing and/or avoid having crowded indoor spaces
  • Wash hands and surfaces frequently
  • Stay home when sick or exhibiting symptoms
  • Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when physical distancing is not possible

Before reopening, employers must determine how these measures can be implemented by assessing the workplace and identifying which procedures or spaces should be adjusted accordingly. 

Things to consider include:

  • Are workstations far enough apart? If not, can protective barriers be put in place between them?
  • If physical distancing is not possible, is it necessary to supply PPE (e.g. a mask, gloves) to each worker? What grade of PPE is necessary and how often will it be replaced?
  • What regular procedures or practices must be adjusted to allow for regular physical distancing? Can internal meetings be done virtually, or outdoors? What rules should be put in place to limit movement and contact between employees?
  • Are there common areas in the workplace where physical distancing will be difficult or impossible? What measures can be taken to reduce risks in those spaces? Examples include elevators, kitchens, meeting rooms, locker rooms, clocking stations, manufacturing floors, etc. Do these spaces need strict limits on the number of employees using them at once? Should any areas be closed entirely?
  • Are there sufficient sinks and disinfection station(s) located around the workplace to allow for frequent handwashing?
  • Is there a need to increase the frequency of cleaning at the facility? Are there touch points that will need particular attention? 
  • Should work schedules, start and finish times, and breaks be arranged to avoid congestion when entering, clocking in or out, or leaving the facility?
  • Is there a need for screening employees arriving at work?

An effective return to work plan will carefully assess and consider all risks, and anticipate employee concerns. Once the assessment has been completed and the employer has decided which measures are necessary, those measures should be set out in policies and communicated to employees before they are recalled to work.

For more information on policies and recalling employees to work, please see Part 2.

For assistance with assessing your particular workplace risks, please contact a member of the SV Law employment team and we will be happy to help

Related Team

Eva M. Lane

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter and is not legal advice. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your specific circumstance.