As the global economy begins to cautiously reopen, companies across borders are exploring ways to gradually reopen workplaces. Employers now face new questions over how to reintegrate their workforces in a safe, efficient, and legally compliant manner.

What risk mitigation efforts should the prudent employer take before employees return to the workplace?

Employer's duty to protect health and safety

In general, Canadian employers have a legal obligation to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect employee health and safety. This obligation also extends to protecting employees from communicable illnesses such as COVID-19 and includes any industry-specific and jurisdictional requirements put in place due to the pandemic.

While occupational health and safety requirements vary between Canada's 14 jurisdictions (made up of the federal jurisdiction, 10 provinces and three northern territories), generally speaking, employers in Canada are required to:

  • provide workers with information, instruction, training and supervision on how to work safely;
  • ensure supervisors are informed of what is required to protect workers' health and safety on the job;
  • create workplace health and safety policies and procedures;
  • ensure parties at the workplace comply with the relevant workplace health and safety policies and procedures; and
  • ensure workers wear the required protective equipment and have received proper training on how to use it.


COVID-19 risk mitigation strategies

Employers in Canada are required to take all reasonable precautions to protect workers from contracting COVID-19. What is deemed "reasonable" will necessarily depend on a number of factors, which may include the employer's industry, size and resources, as well as any circumstantial or fact-specific considerations.

Recently, a number of jurisdictions have provided specific guidance on how to maintain health and safety in the reopening workplace and between returning workers. Generally, employers in Canada will have to develop reasonable measures to:

  • Prevent the risk of transmission of infection amongst workers, volunteers or (as applicable) patrons;
  • Provide a rapid response if a worker, volunteer or member of the public develops symptoms of illness while at the place of business; and
  • Maintain high levels of hygiene.

Although government orders and recommendations may vary by jurisdictions there are a number of measures employers can follow to work towards ensuring a safe and healthy workplace.

As a starting point, before allowing employees to return to the workplace, employers across Canadian jurisdictions may need to consider:

  • Properly identifying COVID-19 health risks in the workplace;
  • Ensuring compliance with all legal requirements that apply depending on the jurisdiction and industry; and
  • Preparing effective risk mitigation strategies.

For more information on how to create and implement effective risk mitigation strategies in view of reopening the workplace, please see our Roadmap for Canadian employers: Reopening the workplace while mitigating pandemic risks (guide aussi disponible en français).

Staying informed

It can be anticipated that governments across Canada will continue to adapt and develop guidance on how to maintain health and safety in the workplace. That may include specific direction on a number of key issues affecting employers across industries, including:

  • Screening of employees
  • Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
  • Cleaning and disinfecting in the workplace
  • Personal protective equipment in the workplace
  • Workplace bathrooms and showers
  • Distancing and gatherings in the workplace

It should be noted that any government guidance on the above-noted issues can quickly change, so it will be important to ensure employers remain as flexible, adaptable and responsive as possible in the coming period.

For more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements and governmental guidance, please note we have included references to the most important government resources in all of Canada's jurisdictions.

Who should be involved in the decisions to return to the workplace?

Consulting with key stakeholders

To prepare for the safe and healthy reopening of any workplace, it is important to consider which stakeholders should be included in all steps and procedures necessary to ensure health and safety, and compliance with other applicable legal requirements.

As mentioned in the response to the previous question, one of the first things on an employer's checklist will be to create a detailed list of all identified risks, and any outstanding issues that need to be addressed in the workplace.

To achieve this, employers may have to conduct a physical walkthrough of the workplace to identify personal, equipment, and surface contact risks. In so doing, employers should give special consideration to which key stakeholders should be engaged in reopening plans. Engaging all appropriate stakeholders may help employers better understand the interactions between and needs of workers, co-workers, third parties in the workplace, and the physical set-up of the workplace.

From a health and safety perspective, stakeholders may include:

  • the joint occupational health and safety committee;
  • human resources managers;
  • a union representative;
  • a supervisor or manager from each department; or
  • any other party who may be helpful in understanding how employees interact with each other, physical surfaces, work-related required equipment, and externalities in the workplace.

As mentioned previously, specific obligations may vary between jurisdictions. For example, in Ontario, employers should work in consultation with the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative. For unionized employers, the workplace reopening should be planned in consultation with the trade union or representative. It is always best to seek legal counsel to understand any nuances between the requirements of each jurisdiction.


Consulting with and soliciting feedback from employees

Engaging employees by keeping them up to date on developing health and safety measures and reopening plans can also be beneficial to employers, based on a number of considerations.

Firstly, for many employers reopening, work refusals are a central concern. In Canada, workers generally have the right to refuse dangerous or unduly hazardous work if they have legitimate health and safety concerns. Generally, after an employee refuses to work on the basis it is dangerous, the work cannot continue until an investigation is carried out and determines if the refusal is justified or not. In some jurisdictions, the legislation expressly requires the employer to pay the refusing employee, and ensure he or she is in a safe place while the investigation is ongoing.

To mitigate this risk, employers may want to involve workers in certain reopening or returning conversations, and address any legitimate safety-related concerns raised in that context. In practice, this could take the form of consultations with an employee or a union representative. Soliciting employee input could also be encouraged by implementing a confidential and voluntary employee reporting or feedback program that allows employees to raise any concerns they may have regarding workplace safety.

Moreover, for some employees, the stresses and fatigue of the pandemic has had a significant, and perhaps, lasting, toll on their mental health. Ensuring that employees are involved in the reopening process could help to mitigate these challenges, and work to create a sense of reassurance and ease among the workers.

With the above-noted considerations in mind, it is important to note that some jurisdictions have published specific guidance on communicating COVID-19-related information to employees. For example, in Alberta the provincial government has recently recommended that employers keep in constant communications with employees on developments related to COVID-19, including steps taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace, and the employees' role in the furtherance of that objective.

Please refer to the links provided at the end of the Canadian portion of this guide for more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements.

What can the prudent employer do to ensure physical distancing in terms of the work space?

Gatherings in the workplace

Throughout the pandemic, governments have also set a cap on the maximum number of people allowed in one gathering. However, these numbers vary significantly from jurisdiction to another. Moreover, as the economy gradually reopens, it is anticipated that these numbers may be subject to ongoing change.

To stay on top of this and for more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements and governmental guidance, please note we have included references to the most important government resources in all of Canada's jurisdictions.

Social distancing more broadly

In general, reopening workplaces are required to maintain social distancing, where possible. Throughout the pandemic and again recently, governmental authorities across jurisdictions have provided guidance on how social distancing can be addressed and facilitated in reopening workplaces.


Practical tips recommended by governments in Canada include the following:

  • Maintain a two-metre distance (i.e., install floor markers to indicate this distance, or employ staff to manage this distance in lineups, while ensuring the staff maintains their distance too);
  • Consider erecting plexiglass barriers when two metres cannot be maintained between workers, or workers and the public;
  • Re-arrange where staff are assigned to work to optimize physical distancing;
  • Reduce the number of passengers on elevators and avoid crowding in stairwells and other tight spaces;
  • Consider implementing a system for virtual and/or telephone/video consultations when and where possible;
  • Postpone non-essential face-to-face appointments or convert to virtual/video appointments;
  • Suspend all group activities and gatherings;
  • Hold meetings in outdoor spaces;
  • Direct traffic flow within the business (e.g., establishing one-way shopping aisles);
  • Install a physical barrier, such as a cubicle, partition or window, to separate workers, volunteers and patrons;
  • Increase separation between desks and workstations;
  • Eliminate or re-structure non-essential gatherings (e.g., meetings, training classes) of workers, patrons and volunteers, such as moving in-person meetings to virtual media platforms such as teleconference or video conference;
  • Implement contact-free modes of patron interaction such as home delivery of goods or curb-side pickup of items;
  • Place reference markers (e.g., markings on the floor in grocery lineups) that set out two-metre distances;
  • Remove chairs from spaces and tape markers at six-foot distances.

Although the measures discussed above are not exhaustive, they provide some insight into how employers can think creatively to ensure their workplaces reopen in a legally compliant manner.

What can the prudent employer do to ensure physical distancing in temporal terms?

In addition to the measures discussed in the response to the previous question, governments in Canada have recommended a number of measures to ensure social distancing in the workplace.


Governments in Canada have recommended the following to promote social distancing in temporal terms:

  • Having staff work from home whenever possible (i.e., administrative staff);
  • Staggering start times, breaks and lunches;
  • Reducing the numbers of people in the workplace (e.g., cease non-essential work; staggered, shorter work hours; customers admitted in limited numbers);
  • Restricting the number of employees, volunteers and patrons in a business at any one time;
  • Limiting the number of people in shared spaces (such as lunchrooms) or staggering break periods;
  • Limiting hours of operation or setting specific hours for at-risk patrons.

It should be noted that, in many respects, some of the recommended measures may require support from human resources and other departments, as well as heightened supervision from management. It will therefore be important to regularly communicate with all managers and supervisors, as well as with employees, to the extent possible.

For more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements and governmental guidance, please note that we have included references to the most important government resources in all of Canada's jurisdictions.

What protections should the prudent employer consider implementing, in addition to physical distancing?

Additional protections will vary depending on the employer, as well as its jurisdiction and industry.


Across Canada, government authorities have recommended a number of additional protections to protect against COVID-19. These include the following:

  • Ensure all high-touch tools and surfaces are cleaned regularly;
  • Provide workers with more opportunities to keep their hands clean, for example by providing soap and water or hand sanitizer if soap is not available;
  • Ensure workers are using any required personal protective equipment appropriately;
  • Remind workers to stay home if they are sick;
  • Consider what screening measures can be implemented for employees and customers;
  • Maintain bathrooms and showers and any associated amenities in a clean and sanitary condition.

For more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements and governmental guidance, please note we have included references to the most important government resources in all of Canada's jurisdictions.

How can an employer screen its employees, including temperature testing, COVID-19 testing and questioning?

As discussed in previous questions, employers are required to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. Given the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, this obligation includes implementing reasonable measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The appropriateness of screening, testing or other control measures to eliminate or minimize the potential for occupational exposure will depend on the risk level of each workplace.

For workplaces with lower risk, reasonable control measures may include posting signage for proper respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, providing sanitization facilities such as hand washing stations or hand sanitizer, frequently cleaning and disinfecting commonly used spaces in the workplace, increasing distance between workstations and making sure that employees are aware of the steps to take if they experience any symptoms.

For workplaces with higher risk, such as those engaged in health care, food services, manufacturing etc., more extensive control measures may be justified. Given the increasing prevalence of COVID-19 in Ontario, it may be reasonable for high-risk workplaces to implement mandatory screening and/or testing (including temperature checks) prior to admitting entrance to the workplace. This would also likely be justified where there is evidence of an outbreak in either a high- or low-risk workplace.

However, in some jurisdictions, occupational health and safety legislation provides employers with the right to establish a medical surveillance program or provide for safety-related medical examinations and tests, this may only permitted in the circumstances prescribed by regulation. It will therefore be important to see legal counsel before implementing screening procedures in Canada.

An employer's occupational health and safety obligations in these circumstances must be weighed against the protections afforded to an individual's privacy and human rights. As will be noted, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a balancing of interests approach would likely favour the health and safety of the workplace and public over the employee's individual rights.

In some jurisdictions, such as Ontario, human rights bodies have taken the position that conducting a medical assessment to verify or determine an employee's fitness to perform his or her work, such as taking an employee's temperature, may be permissible. However, employers should only collect information from medical testing that is reasonably necessary to the employee's fitness to perform on the job and any restrictions that may limit this ability, while excluding information that may identify a disability.

In Alberta, the provincial government recommends employers implement active daily screening of workers for symptoms of fever, sore threat, cough, runny nose or difficulty breathing. Employees with these symptoms should not be allowed into the workplace. Employers are further advised to keep a contact list for all workers to enable quick contact and tracing close contacts.


If it is deemed that screening employees is required, the following best practices should be considered:

  • Employees should be provided with advanced notice in writing of the testing measures being implemented for entrance to the workplace prior to their arrival at the premises. This notice should state the purpose of the testing, explain the methods being used and provide information on the steps that will be taken based on the outcome of the test.
  • Any testing must be performed by a qualified medical professional, such as a nurse, who is able and qualified to properly administer the tests and interpret the results.
  • The employer should consult with the qualified medical professional to set the temperature that employees must test below to be permitted entry to the workplace.
  • Testing must be conducted in the least intrusive manner (i.e., using no contact devices or methods) and be performed in a space that protects the employee's privacy. For example, have a testing area set up in a private, low-traffic area.
  • Testing should be conducted in a safe manner that does not place the employees or the medical professional conducting the test at risk. For example, the testing area should be frequently cleaned and disinfected, hand sanitizer or washing stations should be provided and the medical professionals should wear the proper personal protective equipment while performing the tests.
  • Where a test result reveals that an employee's temperature is above the prescribed level, the employee should be instructed to leave the workplace immediately. If available, it is recommended that the employee complete a self-assessment online and call his or her public health authority. In Ontario, this would mean completing the online self-assessment, or calling either Telehealth at 1-866-797-0000 or asking the employee to contact his or her primary care provider. The employer should have a system in place where the employee can leave the workplace safely and discreetly so as to ensure no contact is made with other employees and to preserve the employee's privacy and dignity.
  • If medical information is obtained by the employer, it must be handled in accordance with applicable privacy legislation.
  • Where the testing performed in a unionized workplace, the employer should ensure that testing is performed in accordance with the applicable collective agreement. Where the testing is not permitted under an applicable management rights clause, the employer should consult with the union prior to implementing the testing.

Any mandatory testing program should regularly be reviewed and re-evaluated.

What are the requirements regarding travel - either to or from the office or business travel?

Business Travel

The government of Canada has advised that all non-essential travel abroad should be avoided at this time, including to the United States, subject to certain exceptions. As a result, employers should, as a best practice, cancel all non-essential travel of their employees.


However, if someone must travel, the government has recommended that the following be followed during transit:

  • avoid large crowds or crowded areas
  • avoid contact with sick people, especially if they have a cough, fever or difficulty breathing
  • be aware of the local situation and follow local public health advice
  • wash your hands often with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds
  • use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available and always keep some with you when you travel
  • practise proper cough and sneeze etiquette

In addition, it should be noted that all those entering Canada, including returning Canadian and permanent residents, are required by law to self-quarantine for 14 days. Entering foreign nationals who exhibit signs of COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter Canada at this time.

To monitor changes on government-ordered travel restrictions, please see here.

Traveling to or from the office

In all Canadian jurisdictions, workers should follow the general public health measures when travelling to or from the workplace.


  • Government health measures and recommendations may include:
  • Respecting all social distancing rules
  • Cleaning hands properly
  • Wearing a face covering if social distancing is not possible
  • Considering travel during off-peak hours or limiting transit
  • Remind employees to stay home if they are sick
  • Discussing with employees steps they can take to mitigate the risk of transmission in non-work settings such as during commute to and from work (e.g., carpooling, public transit, chartered busses).

For public transit specifically, safety measures may vary by province or city. By way of example, the public transit provider of Canada's capital city, Ottawa, has recommended the following for traveling patrons:

  • Do not use public transit if you have a fever and/or new onset of cough or difficulty breathing; or you have been in close contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19
  • Plan your trip in advance
  • Protect yourself while using public transit: Cover your face; cough and sneeze with a tissue or into your arm, not your hand; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; and practice physical distancing (two metres away from others).
  • When you reach your destination: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer, as soon as possible or when you reach your destination.

For more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements and governmental guidance, please note we have included references to the most important government resources in all of Canada's jurisdictions at the end of the Canadian portion of this guide.

How does the prudent employer decide which employees should return to the workplace?

Deciding who can, should and must return to the workplace is an exercise that will depend on the nature of the employer's business, and on the resources required to keep the physical workplace open and operational.


Although different specific requirements and needs may differ from employer to employer, there are a number of best practices that can be considered across the board, including:

  • Reminding workers to stay home if they are sick.
  • Considering making the return to the workplace voluntary for some of the workforce as part of a gradual integration, to the extent possible.
  • Minimizing the number of employees working at the workplace at any one time, to the extent possible.
  • Limiting the employees returning to work to those critical for the operation of the business or whose duties cannot be performed at home.
  • Remaining mindful of all obligations under applicable human rights and occupational health and safety legislation, which prohibit discrimination, harassment and violence in the workplace.
  • Giving special consideration to potential issues of discrimination that could arise in the workplace, be they based on disability, race, ethnicity or national origin. Under human rights legislation, employers have a duty to accommodate employees, including those with a disability or family care-giving responsibilities.
  • Facilitating the ability of employees to work from home to the extent possible, and prioritize the return to work of those who cannot perform their duties at home.

For more information on jurisdiction-specific requirements and governmental guidance, please note we have included references to the most important government resources in all of Canada's jurisdictions at the end of the Canadian portion of this guide.

What if an employee refuses to return to the workplace?

Employees' right to refuse work in Canada?

Generally speaking, health and safety legislation across the country allows employees to refuse work in dangerous or unduly hazardous situations, depending on the wording of the governing legislation. Moreover, collective agreements may also have work refusal provisions that apply in specific work environments. Most commonly, work refusals arise when employees refuse to do something they have been asked to do, because of unsafe operating equipment, or the physical condition of the workplace. Depending on the circumstances, employees can refuse to do either a single task or a series of tasks at work, or can refuse to work altogether.

To lawfully refuse work in Canada, employees must meet a certain threshold, which may vary depending on the jurisdiction. For instance, in some jurisdictions, such as Alberta, work refusals must generally be based on reasonable grounds. In others such as Ontario, the worker must only have a "reason" to stop work initially, which may be a subjective reason, and later the inspector determines if the situation is "likely to endanger" on a reasonableness standard.

Refusing employees must therefore have legitimate health and safety concerns, and the evidence must demonstrate the employee is at risk or likely to be at risk because of a hazard or condition in the workplace. For this reason, employees cannot refuse work because of preference, taste or personal comfort. Determining what constitutes a danger is not always an obvious exercise. The analysis will therefore be situationally driven and will crucially depend on the evidence of the case.

The ultimate determination of whether or not a work refusal is reasonable in the circumstances is a question of fact, dealt with case by case. For example, in some cases, employees will face normal conditions in the course of their employment that carry some risk, such as those working in the emergency services sector. A work refusal in that context may not be justified, whereas it may be reasonable for employees working in other domains to do so under the same conditions.

Although it is not yet clear to what extent COVID-19 will allow workers to legally refuse work, there are a number of helpful cases from the federal sector during the SARS outbreak about 15 years ago that provide some insight.

In most cases, work refusals were found to be unjustified based on the available evidence. For example, in the federal jurisdiction, two investigation and control officers refused to work because they were afraid of contact with Asian clients coming from the airport, who might have been exposed to SARS. It was found that based on the evidence there was "neither an existing nor a potential hazard of contracting SARS" and so the work refusal was unjustified (Caverly and Canada (Human Resources Development) [2005], C.L.C.A.O.D. No. 10 (QL) (Appeals Officer under Canada Labour Code)). However, it should be noted this decision was made under the Code's previous definition of danger, which, as mentioned previously, has since been amended to expressly include the concepts of "imminent" and "serious" under federal legislation. Moreover, the facts surrounding the COVID-19 and SARS outbreaks are different in many respects. As such, employers would be wise to ensure that their response to any potential work refusal from an employee be dealt with in compliance with the procedures set out in applicable health and safety legislation.

The procedural steps of a work refusal, generally

In addition, employers in Canada should be mindful that the procedural requirements surrounding work refusals vary by jurisdiction. Generally speaking, refusing workers are firstly required to notify their supervisor or employer that their or another's health or well-being is being endangered by a condition or hazard in the workplace. Once notified, the supervisor or employer must investigate to determine whether the circumstances justify the worker's refusal to work. This is often done in the presence of the employee, joint health and safety representatives and/or a union representative. Based on this assessment, the employer then determines if the work refusal is justified.

If the refusal is justified, the employer has a duty to ensure safety is re-established, and the refusing employee may thereafter return to work. If the refusal is not justified, the employee will be directed to return to work. If the employee disagrees with the employer's decision and continues to refuse to work, the appropriate government regulator would appoint an inspector to conduct a health and safety inspection surrounding the circumstances of the refusal. Following the investigation, the inspector decides if the work refusal was lawful due to a condition or hazard in the workplace and sends his or her findings to the concerned parties.


Employers should follow all health and safety measures and recommendations specific to their jurisdiction and industry.

Keep lines of communication open and transparent with employees, to the extent possible. For more information on communicating with employees, please see Question 2.

It should be noted that at all stages of the investigative process, health and safety statutes across Canada require that employees cooperate with employer investigations and, if applicable, the appropriate government authority.

Regardless of the situation, before getting too deeply involved in any dispute related to work refusals on the basis of COVID-19, it would be wise to seek legal guidance on how the process works in any specific jurisdiction.

For more information on work refusals in Canada, please see here.

What other considerations should the prudent employer is thinking about at this time?

As we now know, the impact of COVID-19 transcends the domain of health and safety. Indeed, employers will have to address a constellation of issues in other areas of the law, which may include:

Staying well positioned

To conclude, it should be mentioned that not every workplace challenge can be fixed by our legal regime. For example, when addressing a situation where an employee refuses to perform work on the basis of health and safety concerns, the objectivity and legitimacy of those concerns are and will undoubtedly continue to often be elusive. Work refusals may in some cases manifest themselves despite the implementation of risk mitigation measures and strategies, and regardless of disciplinary or job loss consequences. As a result, management and human resources teams will need to enhance transparency, communication and consultation processes in particular around enhanced safety measures taken in their workplaces.

Looking onwards, it can be anticipated that government guidelines discussed and referred to in the previous questions may be subject to future change as the economy gradually reopens. To stay on top of it all, we have provided you with some of the key resources published by government authorities in every Canadian jurisdiction, commencing with the federal jurisdiction, followed by the provinces and territories listed in alphabetical order below.

(For private sector employers)

Government of Canada

Bank of Canada

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

Canadian Human Rights Commission

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

The Public Health Agency of Canada


Government of Alberta

Alberta Human Rights Commission

Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta

Workers' Compensation Board


Government of British Columbia

WorkSafe BC

BC Centre for Disease Control/BC Ministry of Health

Office of the Human Rights Commissioner (British Columbia)

Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia


Government of Manitoba:

SAFE Work Manitoba

Manitoba Workers' Compensation Board


Government of New Brunswick


New Brunswick Human Rights Commission


Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

Human Rights Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador

Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner



Government of Northwest Territories

NWT Human Rights Commission:

Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission and Northwest Territories and Nunavut


Government of Nova Scotia

Worker's Compensation Board

Office of Information & Privacy Commissioner

Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission


Government of Nunavut

Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission and NWT and Nunavut


Government of Ontario

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario:

Workplace Safety and Insurance Board Ontario


Government of Prince Edward Island

Workers' Compensation Board of PEI

PEI Human Rights Commission


Gouvernment du Québec

Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (Québec)

Institut national de santé publique (Québec)

Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (Québec):

Commission d'accès a l'information du Québec


Government of Saskatchewan

WorkSafe Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board

Office of the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner


Government of Yukon

Yukon Workers' Compensation Health and Safety Board

Yukon Information and Privacy Commissioner

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