It is not too early - even in the midst of the pandemic - for employers to plan the reopening of all or part of their businesses.
The federal, provincial and territorial governments recently released a set of common principles for restarting the Canadian economy. Québecand Saskatchewan have set specific dates for the reopening of schools and certain businesses. Ontario has also released a plan for reopening but without specific dates. To be ready for the reopening of the economy, employers need a carefully prepared and prudent plan to bring employees back to the workplace.
In reopening, employers will need to be particularly mindful of their obligations under health and safety legislation, including the general duty to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workers, provide personal protective equipment where required, and provide information to employees about workplace risks, among other things. Health and safety duties will require risks assessment and implementation of controls, prior to returning to work, to protect employees from COVID-19.
Below are some key considerations for employers planning to reopen their businesses and return employees to the workplace. This general guidance will apply to most workplaces, but each employer must develop a plan customized for their particular workplace and employees. Employers should review and incorporate into their plans any guidance about safe reopening issued by regulators. Employers with unionized workforces will also need to be mindful of specific obligations in their collective agreements, including any obligation to develop a plan in consultation with union representatives
- Task Force: Employers should establish a dedicated, multi-disciplinary team to plan, prepare and monitor the reopening of the workplace. This should ensure a consistent approach to all aspects of the reopening. The task force can oversee the conduct of risk assessments, help develop and implement workplace controls to minimize the risk, and plan for the logistical and technological challenges of returning employees to the workplace.
- Contingency Planning: Employers must have a contingency plan in place to respond to workplace disruption while ensuring business continuity. This plan should contemplate the possibility of an employer or regulator initiated shutdown due to an outbreak in the workplace, and the implementation of new public health or government ordered closures of business.
- Workplace Layouts: Employers should reassess the physical layout of the workplace and consider whether physical spaces need to be reconfigured or uses changed to comply with social distancing guidelines and to reduce the risk of contagion.
- Controlling Access to the Workplace: Employers should review safety measures to control access to the workplace by employees, stakeholders, visitors, contractors and customers. These measures will vary by the nature of the workplace. In some cases, it may be as simple as a written policy and signage requiring people to refrain from entry if sick, in contact with someone who is sick or affected by COVID-19 in the last fourteen days, or who has travelled internationally.
- Phased Return to Work: Phased returns to work could be required by provincial governments and public health authorities. Even if they are not required, phased returns should be considered by employers as a means of risk reduction. Employers should decide who must return to work immediately and who may be gradually called-back. This could mean bringing a smaller group of key employees back to work after government restrictions are lifted while other employees continue to work remotely, if possible. Employees who are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 should be given particular consideration in a phased return to work.
- Changes to Work Hours: Employers should consider varying work hours, shift schedules, and break times to prevent large groups of employees from arriving, leaving or gathering in the workplace. This can help minimize the risk of contagion. Employers may also consider creating self-contained teams who work different, non-overlapping schedules. This will reduce social interaction, and, in the event of an workplace outbreak, may create a firewall between employee groups to reduce the risk of transmission.
- Communication: Communications with employees, and other stakeholders before, during and after the return to work will be very important. This may include communicating the plan for reopening to internal stakeholders, informing employees of the measures put in place to ensure safe reopening of the workplace, and notifying external stakeholders of when the business will reopen and of any changes in access procedures for external parties. It may also include notifying affected individuals in the event of a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19.
- Policies and Procedures: Employers should create written guidelines for employees on how to practice physical distancing in the workplace, and create a procedure outlining the steps employees are required to take if they are sick or believe they are infected with COVID-19. Other policies and procedures may be required depending on the nature of the workplace and work performed and the results of the risk assessments conducted. These policies and procedures must be reviewed and updated as necessary to ensure they are still effective. They must also be supported by appropriate training for supervisors and workers before the return to the workplace, and by retraining as the situation evolves or as policies and procedures change.
- Close Quarters: In some places at work (like in an elevator, change room/showers, or on a manufacturing line), it may be difficult, impossible, or even unsafe for employees to distance themselves from each other by two metres. If the workplace cannot be safely reconfigured, employers should design specific procedures to minimize risk of contagion while ensuring safe and productive operations. This may involve specific work rules for operation, limits on the number of people allowed in a specific place at one time, the use of personal protective equipment, implementation of certain cleaning procedures, or other measures.
- Employee Absenteeism and Work Refusals: Employers should develop a decision matrix or procedure to address attendance issues and work refusals. Some employees may be afraid to return to work, others may face special circumstances themselves (e.g., compromised immunity) or at home impacting their attendance (e.g., child or elder care obligations), and still others may fall ill. These situations need to be handled in a manner consistent with the employer's policies and the obligations in occupational health and safety legislation, employment standards legislation (particularly statutory leaves of absence), and human rights legislation. A decision matrix can educate front line managers on these issues, empower them to make appropriate decisions, and tell them who to contact if they need legal or human resources assistance.
"A goal without a plan is just a wish" to borrow the famous words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. To achieve a sustained, healthy, safe, and productive reopening, employers should invest significant time and energy in planning.
For assistance in developing a plan to reopen your workplace, please contact your existing Fasken lawyer or the authors. Please also consider attending our webinar about reopening your workplace.