Preparing for a Swine Flu Pandemic
Swine Influenza A (H1N1) ("Swine Flu") is raising international concern, particularly with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome ("SARS") fresh in our memories. On April 29, 2009, the World Health Organization ("WHO") raised the pandemic alert from Phase 4 to 5 of 6 as the pandemic has spread to at least two countries in one WHO region. The declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.
As of May 4, 2009, there are 140 laboratory-confirmed cases of Swine Flu reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada, including cases in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.
What are the Symptoms of Swine Flu?
Swine flu is a highly contagious respiratory infection that can be communicated person-to-person in the same way as seasonal flu—mainly through coughing or sneezing of people infected with the influenza virus. People may become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.
Symptoms of swine flu are similar to seasonal influenza (flu), including headache, chills and cough followed by fever, loss of appetite, muscle aches and fatigue, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and throat irritation. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea may occur in adults as well as in children. In more severe cases, or in people with chronic conditions, complications such as pneumonia may develop.
What You Need to Know or Do
There are a number of practical and legal issues raised by the Swine Flu outbreak. The legal considerations include employer obligations under employment standards, occupational health and safety, workers compensation, and privacy laws.
We have set out a list of considerations and suggestions below to assist employers in proactively addressing these issues.
1. Designate a Responsible Individual or Create a Crisis Management Team
- Under occupational health and safety legislation, employers and
supervisors have an obligation to ensure the safety of the
- This may be accomplished by designating one or more individuals
who will be responsible for maintaining awareness, alerting others
in the organization, and implementing stages of the
organization's plan to deal with the outbreak. Larger
organizations will want to create a Crisis Management Team and
assign well-defined roles and responsibilities to each
- The individual or team should determine what sources of
information will be relied on as authoritative and establish how
the individual or team will decide when various responsive measures
should be taken.
2. Keep Employees Informed about Swine Flu
- In order to prevent the spread of Swine Flu, employees need
information about what it is, what its symptoms are, and who should
not attend work.
- In a unionized environment, it would be prudent for an employer
to contact the union to explain how the employees are being kept up
to date and to solicit support of the union in upholding the new
rules and policies applicable to the Swine Flu outbreak.
- In the event of quarantine, an emergency, or a temporary
relocation, employers must also be able to contact their employees.
Employers should therefore update all employee contact lists and
- Outlining a telephone communication chain. Such a chain would
designate point people to contact groups of employees who in turn
contact other groups of employees;
- Installing a telephone information line for recorded
information about the organization in an emergency; and/or
- Allowing all employees remote access to their work e-mail or
securing an employee information website for posting emergency
instructions for employees.
- Outlining a telephone communication chain. Such a chain would designate point people to contact groups of employees who in turn contact other groups of employees;
3. Adopt Additional Workplace Personal Hygiene Practices
- Personal hygiene plays a very significant role in combating
Swine Flu. Employers should recommend the following practices to
- Washing their hands repeatedly throughout the day with soap and
water for at least 15 seconds and using alcohol-based
- Avoiding touching their mouths, noses or eyes with their
- When coughing or sneezing, doing so into a tissue or a sleeve;
- Sanitizing any surfaces, such as desks, phones and keyboards
daily as a precaution.
- Washing their hands repeatedly throughout the day with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and using alcohol-based sanitizers;
- Employers should also consider providing hand sanitizer in
public areas and antimicrobial wipes for cleaning work
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
("CDC") has suggested that individuals avoid close
contact with people who might be ill and being in crowded settings.
Employers should recommend that their employees adopt social
distancing practices in the workplace. This means keeping at least
three feet apart from other employees, especially in meeting rooms,
elevators, shared workspaces and lunchrooms.
- Face masks have not yet been recommended for workplace use. The
following recommendations with respect to the use of face masks and
respirators have been provided to date by the CDC:
- Face masks should be considered for use by individuals who
enter crowded settings, both to protect their nose and mouth from
other people's coughs and to reduce the wearers' likelihood
of coughing on others; the time spent in crowded settings should be
as short as possible.
- Respirators such as the N95 need only be considered for use by
individuals for whom close contact with an infectious person is
unavoidable. This can include selected individuals who must care
for a sick person (e.g., family member with a respiratory
infection) at home.
- Face masks should be considered for use by individuals who enter crowded settings, both to protect their nose and mouth from other people's coughs and to reduce the wearers' likelihood of coughing on others; the time spent in crowded settings should be as short as possible.
4. Activate a Self-Screening Procedure
- Employers should tell their employees that if they experience
any signs or symptoms listed above, they are required to stay at
home and immediately contact their supervisor or the responsible
individual or team.
- Although not all Canadian jurisdictions have private sector
privacy laws that protect employees, employers should protect the
privacy of employee health information revealed to them.
5. Consider Adopting Temporary Travel Policy
- As of April 30, 2009, the Public Health Agency of Canada
recommends on their website that travelers from Canada postpone
elective or non-essential travel to Mexico until further
- Under the temporary travel policy, employers should temporarily
require all employees who travel to affected areas to report such
travel to the individual responsible or the team.
- Employees should be required to report any travel to affected
areas since the beginning of April, or upcoming travel to any of
these affected areas, whether for business or for personal reasons.
Currently, laboratory confirmed cases have been reported, in Mexico
and in the following North American locations:
- British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia in Canada; and
Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan,
Nevada, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas in the U.S.
- British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia in Canada; and Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas in the U.S.
6. Manage Absenteeism
- Employees who are experiencing flu-like symptoms may attempt to
attend work out of fear of being penalized or because they cannot
afford to lose wages.
- Employers should be supportive but require employees to stay
home from work when they are experiencing symptoms.
- Employers should review the applicable employment or labour
standards legislation and obligations with respect to emergency,
family, or other legislated leaves to take care of sick family
members and ensure compliance with such leaves.
- Across the country, employees are eligible for family medical
leave which permits employees to take up to eight weeks off to
provide care or support for certain individuals if the individual
has a serious medical condition with a significant risk of death
occurring within a period of 26 weeks.
- In Ontario, if an employer has 50 or more employees, employees
are entitled to up to ten days of personal emergency leave and may
be entitled to family medical leave (if an emergency declared under
the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, an
employee may also be entitled to additional unpaid leave).
- Across the country, employees are eligible for family medical leave which permits employees to take up to eight weeks off to provide care or support for certain individuals if the individual has a serious medical condition with a significant risk of death occurring within a period of 26 weeks.
7. Consider the Public and Private Benefits Available to Affected Employees
- Employers should make a list of all benefits and supports
already in place for employees. These benefits may include
short-term disability, long-term disability, employment insurance,
or workers compensation (if Swine Flu is contracted in the
workplace). At present, there has not been any suggestion that the
two week waiting period for Employment Insurance will be waived as
was the case with SARS.
- Although the employer's general attendance or leave of
absence policies may adequately deal with the situation, the
employer may need to adapt the policies on a temporary basis during
the Swine Flu outbreak. Employers may consider implementing the
- Treating an employee's need to care for infected dependents
as an employee illness;
- Permitting the employee to use sick leave credits or short-term
disability benefits where available;
- Allowing the employee to use vacation or lieu days in order to
receive paid time off;
- Where possible, facilitating work from home by providing
employees with access to the required technology; and/or
- Providing opportunities to make up lost time so no income is
- Treating an employee's need to care for infected dependents as an employee illness;
8. Deal with Work Refusals
- Occupational health and safety legislation gives an employee
the right to refuse work that he or she believes is unsafe if
certain procedures are followed. The employee may be entitled to
pay during the work refusal.
- Employers must investigate any work refusals in accordance with
the applicable occupational health and safety legislation and
employees may be entitled to pay during the investigation.
- Employers cannot discipline employees for refusing work unless
the employee has refused to work in bad faith.
- Some employees may call in work from home refusing to work. If
an employee refuses to work out of an unfounded fear that he or she
will contract Swine Flu (e.g., no one else in the workplace has
Swine Flu), the employee will not likely be entitled for pay for
the period of work refusal.
9. Implement Security Precautions
- Organizations will need to assess whether their business can
operate in the event of a pandemic, consider whether their facility
is secure, and assess how it will cope with reducing staffing or
the need to shut down without much, if any, warning.
- Employers should implement a sign-in list to monitor visitors
to the workplace. In the event that Swine Flu develops in the
workplace, an employer should have a means of contacting the
visitors to notify them of the outbreak.
This information bulletin is based on information currently available from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, Health Canada, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding Swine Flu. Please note that information regarding Swine Flu is subject to regular updates. You may wish to visit the websites listed below to help you obtain the best and most current information.
Detailed information on Swine Flu is available on the following websites:
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.