Many employers have become accustomed to managing illness and influenza in the workplace, particularly in the winter months. However, health officials have recently identified a new strain of coronavirus that is cause for employers to revisit their workplace policies and practices to ensure continued worker health and safety.
The coronavirus has been identified in patients in a growing number of countries, including Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany, France, Japan and China.
According to the World Health Organization (the "WHO"), a coronavirus usually causes respiratory illness. Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
The WHO recommends a number of precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. The WHO also suggests that people avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.
Employers have a legal obligation to ensure a safe workplace for all workers. In order to protect workers from the risk of exposure to coronavirus in the workplace, employers should consider taking some or all of the following precautions:
- Educate workers on the signs and symptoms of coronavirus, and the precautions that can be taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Identify the nearest medical facility that workers can attend if they require medical attention.
- Provide (more) hygienic products in the workplace, including hand washing stations, facial tissues, flu masks.
- Assess risks of exposure by identifying workers who (i) may have travelled to Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China, where the virus is believed to have originated, since December 2019, (ii) may have come into direct contact with another person who as travelled to Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China, or (iii) may be scheduled to travel to Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China or other affected areas in the foreseeable future.
- Evaluate workplace emergency response protocols and consider what, if any. modifications are necessary to address a potential coronavirus pandemic. Protocols should include contact information for employer representatives who can provide additional information to workers about how the coronavirus may impact their safety in the workplace.
- Reschedule work travel (and encourage workers to reschedule personal travel) to Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China or other affected areas for the foreseeable future.
- Monitor for signs of illness. If a worker shows respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, or breathing difficulties, encourage that worker to seek medical attention. Ask the worker to provide medical documentation before returning to work if appropriate.
- Require workers to work from home (or provide a leave of absence), as permitted by law, where workers show respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, or breathing difficulties, or where a worker has travelled to Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China since December 2019.
- Accommodate medical conditions to the point of undue hardship by allowing workers time away from work to attend medical appointments and to recover. Employer policies or procedures may already provide for this.
- Remain informed of developments, and continue to circulate new information to workers as it becomes available. Sources of valuable information include the WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control, and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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