Returning to work during COVID-19 raises questions about the steps that employers should be taking to train their employees and adapt their physical workplaces in order to continue operating (if they did not shutdown during the pandemic) or return to work (if they did shutdown) in this COVID-19 world pandemic.
As is the case with many things HR, a return to the workplace during a pandemic is serious business and there is no substitute for good and proper preparation and planning for a safe return. Every business is unique, and there really is no one business continuity or return to work model that is recommended for all. Rather, employers must consider a range of issues in the context of their particular business needs.
Risks Associated with Operating a Business During COVID-19
Employers should also consider how the risks associated with COVID-19 affect their obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure a safe and healthy workplace under applicable occupational health and safety legislation. In particular, employers who fail to take adequate steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace may be subject to inspections, compliance orders and significant fines imposed by occupational health and safety officials. There is also the potential for civil liability where the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace leads to illness or injury for employees and third parties who do not have workers’ compensation coverage.
If an employer fails to take adequate steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, the risk of an outbreak among employees increases and sometimes very significantly. This, in turn, could require the implementation of stronger preventative measures, or re-closing parts of the employer’s business, or the whole business, for an additional period of time. On the other hand, if the anti-COVID-19 measures adopted by an employer are too restrictive or onerous, the employer’s business operations may suffer as a result. There are all sorts of opinions out there about what constitutes proper restrictions and some employers will under or over react. Both cases can affect customers or employees in negative ways.
Plan, Plan, Plan…and take the proper time to plan!
As mentioned there is simply no substitute here for good preparation. Determine who the decision makers are that will be responsible for designing and implementing the COVID-19 Response/Return to Work plan. Steps involved in this process should include:
- Plan preparation, assess your workplace and develop an operational/return to work plan that clearly shows that you have taken every reasonable precaution in the circumstances to prevent the spread of COVID-19
- Plan implementation, which includes developing an effective communication and training strategy for employees; consider an ‘employee re-orientation plan’ to review in detail all COVID-19 preventative measures in place at the workplace and also outside the workplace (social circles)
- Monitor compliance with and effectiveness of the COVID-19 Response/Return to Work plan, which includes regular review and consideration of applicable current and new government and public health guidance
- Response process to issues and problems as they arise and adjust/adapt the COVID-19 Response/Return to Work plan as necessary
Make sure your COVID-19 Response/Return to Work team have the necessary expertise, and pre-approve the assistance/use of consulting experts such as a medical professionals, occupational health and safety specialists and communications professionals.
Within your COVID-19 Response/Return to Work team, assign a person responsible to monitor/communicate recent updates regarding COVID-19, and business operation/return to work guidelines for employers. Federal and provincial governments have all established dedicated COVID-19 websites and online resources that are regularly updated. Advice for employers in each province and jurisdiction to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace has now been posted to these locations.
For employees who have been laid off, plan how they will be recalled and decide whether any advance notice of recall will be provided. Decide whether all employees will return to the workplace at the same time, or if the return to work will occur in stages, with some employees returning before others.
(Warning: Be VERY careful about the order in which you recall employees as emotions are running high and employees will read all sorts of things in to the order of recall – at least this is my learned experience so far with Covid-19 return to work protocol)
Some employees who are able to work or continue working remotely from home should be permitted or required to do so, while other employees may be required to return to the physical workplace. Some employers have adopted a work from home directive to the end of 2020. If you have a collective agreement with a union, review the recall and seniority clauses to ensure they comply with the business continuity/return to work plan.
Things to Consider in Your Business Continuity or Return to Work Plan
Here are the topics to be included in your Business Continuity or Return to Work Plan:
Communications and Training
Plan out in detail how the business continuity/return to work plan, and employee responsibilities under the plan, will be communicated to employees. Good idea to communicate this plan before employees return to work. Describe the process for how questions or feedback from employees will happen. Determine what signage will be needed in the workplace to ensure employees understand their obligations. List out what employees need to know about their obligations in terms of sanitizing, physical distancing, use of PPE and other matters. Consider whether managers require any special training to administer the business continuity/return to work plan. Finally, make sure your plan states that you will continue to adapt and make changes as necessary, and communicate those changes to employees. As mentioned earlier, consider an ‘Employee Re-orientation’ in a global pandemic.
Establish clear guidelines so that employees know they are responsible to self-report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis for themselves or their family members, or where the employee or a family member exhibits symptoms of possible COVID-19, or where the employee has come into contact with someone else with COVID-19, or where the employee is subject to travel-related quarantine restrictions. Require employees to perform a self-assessment or complete a questionnaire prior to attending work, and to provide any other information to the employer such as COVID-19 test results. Decide if other forms of assessment such as temperature checks will be carried out at work. Decide if employees will be required or encouraged to download a government approved contact tracing app onto their cell phone, and make information from the app available to the employer on request. Understand what privacy protections are necessary in order to deal with any COVID-19 related personal information that is received by the employer.
Implement a thorough sanitation cleaning of the physical workplace before employees return to work, and communicate this to employees. Once employees return to the physical workplace, decide what cleaning schedules and protocols are necessary. Provide cleaning and disinfecting supplies such as alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer dispensers and communicate what rules will be enforced concerning their use by employees and third parties present in the workplace.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Decide whether employees will be required to use PPE, and if so which employees, in what circumstances and what specific PPE. Situational things will need to be addressed such as employees who take an elevator to and from the office each day and will they be required to wear a face mask during their elevator trips? Will PPE be provided or made available to employees required to use it, and if so what standard of PPE will be considered adequate (for example, will an N95 graded mask be considered necessary in certain circumstances, as opposed to another form of face mask). Will employees be permitted to use their own PPE if they prefer and, if so, are there any standards applicable here?
Regular Hours of Work, or Shifts and Staggered Start Times
You will need to determine whether regular hours of work will be maintained for all employees, or will shifts or staggered start times be required in order to reduce the number of employees at work at a given time, and promote physical distancing?
Entry and Exit Points
Decide the entry and exit points to the physical workplace, and whether these access points are controlled by the employer or a third party such as a landlord. If the landlord or other third party controls the access points, consult with them to determine what their plan is to reduce to the risk of COVID-19 exposure for people using the access points, and whether the proposed measures are too lax or too onerous in the circumstances. For example, will there be limits on the number of people allowed to use the elevator at one time, and are those limits practical in the circumstances? Decide how lineups and bottlenecks at access points (for instance, people waiting to use the elevator) will be dealt with, and how physical distancing will be maintained in these circumstances. Determine if the number of access points to the workplace should be restricted so that the number and identity of people in the workplace can be better monitored and controlled. Understand how any such measures comply with fire code and other safety regulations. Communicate if any special monitoring equipment such as temperature checking devices will be used at access points, and what rules apply to that. Finally, decide how deliveries and other shipping and receiving issues will be dealt with, and whether items delivered to the workplace should be sanitized and how.
Physical Distancing of Work Stations
Consider whether the physical separation of work spaces is adequate and whether any changes to the physical layout of the workplace are advisable or possible. Consider whether other measures besides reconfiguring the workplace are possible, such as reducing the density of employees in particular areas, use of plexiglass screens or other physical separation equipment or the use of directional signage and floor markings.
In common gathering areas such as reception areas, lunch rooms and meeting rooms, decide whether any measures are required to promote physical distancing in these spaces. Decide whether all common or gathering areas in the workplace will be open, or whether some will remain closed.
Frequent Touch Points and Common Equipment
Frequent touch points such as door handles, light switches and elevator buttons must follow a detailed cleaning process/frequency and remain clean and disinfected. Review measures such as propping open doors, and how this can work in terms of safety and security concerns, fire code regulations and other considerations. Detail the steps to be taken to ensure that common equipment such as coffee machines, cups and glasses, microwave ovens, vending machines, water coolers and photocopiers remain clean and disinfected, and if all such equipment will remain in use or if some of it will be temporarily removed or shut off.
Decide if there any changes or improvements to the HVAC system that should be considered to improve ventilation and air circulation in the workplace.
Outline whether any measures are necessary to limit or control third-party access to the workplace. Decide what physical distancing, sanitization, PPE or other requirements will be imposed on third parties present in the workplace, and what steps will be taken if a third party refuses to comply with these requirements. If there are any contractor employees present on site (for example cleaning personnel), decide what COVID-19 related rules apply to them, whether the rules are adequate and who is responsible for enforcing those rules. Decide if there are any alternatives to in-person third-party meetings that should be promoted or mandated through the use of technology. (such as Zoom conferences as an example)
Consequences for Failure or Refusal to Comply with the Business Continuity or Return to Work Plan
Decide what disciplinary or other measures will be applied to employees who fail or refuse to comply with the business continuity or return to work plan. As an example, will employees be sent home in these circumstances, and if so will they be paid or unpaid while they are away? When addressing the issue of discipline, take into consideration whether the employee’s action constitutes misconduct, or if it reflects a legitimate concern involving human rights, privacy or the right to refuse unsafe work under occupational health and safety legislation. Also decide what steps will be taken where a third party or contractor employee fails or refuses to comply with the business continuity or return to work plan.
Response to a Positive Diagnosis or Potential Exposure to COVID-19 in the Workplace
Know in advance what steps you will take if an employee or their family member tests positive for COVID-19, or if they are exhibiting symptoms of possible COVID-19, or they have been exposed to someone else with COVID-19. Will self-quarantining or testing be required in these circumstances, and what happens if the test result comes back positive or negative? What steps will be taken with respect to contract tracing among other employees, and who will be responsible for that? Will the business remain open while these steps are taken, or are there any additional protective measures that will be implemented in these circumstances? How will a positive test result in the workplace be communicated to other employees?
Response to Employees Who Believe that Returning to Work will Cause or Exacerbate a Disability or Health Risk
Some employees may believe that returning to work at this time will cause or exacerbate an existing disability such as anxiety, an autoimmune disorder or respiratory problems, or lead to some other increased risk to health and safety. Decide in advance how you will handle these concerns, including who these concerns should be directed to, what medical information will be required from the employee, whether any job protection exists under applicable employment standards legislation and whether the employee would qualify for short- or long-term disability benefits in these circumstances. Also consider whether any human rights issues could arise and, if so, whether the employee can be accommodated by working from home.
Spend enough planning time on your return to work plans, if not it will be painfully obvious, reflect poorly on the company and possibly put employees at an unnecessary risk level to contact COVID-19.
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