One of the consequences of working in an essential industry during a time of pandemic is a heightened awareness of risk. It's only human to be concerned for yourself and for others. Could my customer or my co-worker be an asymptomatic transmitter? Am I putting my family at risk?
Employers have an obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to take reasonable care to maintain a safe and healthy workplace at all times, including during a pandemic. At the same time, workers have the right to refuse work if they believe it is likely to endanger themselves or other workers. This right is a pillar of our prevention system.
How COVID-19 fears could spark a refusal
Mathews Dinsdale and Clark LLP has identified several situations involving COVID-19 that could trigger a work refusal:
- a confirmed or presumptive case of COVID-19 in the workplace
- a confirmed case of COVID-19 in an employee's immediate family or other close contact
- the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 from contractors, customers or clients depending on the nature of the workplace or the people it serves
- concerns from employees who are particularly vulnerable (over age 65, compromised immune system, underlying medical condition) not wishing to report to work
- employee concerns over workplace practices and control methods, including personal protective equipment, or
- employees with a generalized fear of contracting COVID-19 by travelling to or attending work*
The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development identifies specific steps to take in the event of a refusal but what if we could prevent a situation from escalating into a refusal?
Workplaces with a vibrant health and safety culture, as well as effective two-way communication, are often able to resolve health and safety concerns so that they don't culminate in a refusal.
How would this play out during a pandemic? Andrew Harkness, WSPS Strategic Advisor, Organizational Health Initiatives, offers nine suggestions on how to respond proactively to employee concerns.
- Start each shift with a safety talk. Review your COVID-19 exposure control measures. Ask for feedback and suggestions on how to further reduce risk.
- Model the desired behaviour and enforce control measures, such as physical distancing and frequent hand washing and sanitizing, so that employees understand and meet your expectations.
- Manage by walking around. Be seen as being present and available to employees.
- Keep communication channels open and encourage workers to bring concerns forward. Talk it through and see if you can find a solution together with employees.
- Be mindful of any stress that employees may be dealing with at work and at home. If they express specific worries, pay attention.
What to do if employees raise concerns
- Respond calmly and with assurance. Listen carefully before speaking.
- Ask questions, such as what more could we do? What would help ease your concerns? What would help you feel more comfortable doing this task? If you make changes, communicate them to anyone who may be affected.
- Be flexible, and be prepared to accommodate individual needs. One single approach may not work for all employees.
- Implement changes promptly. This is the time for visible action.
Find more resources on WSPS' COVID-19 Hub.
* Mathews Dinsdale and Clark LLP, a leading Canadian law firm, addresses the issue of work refusals in an online article, FAQs: COVID-19 and the Workplace. Check out other insights the firm is publishing on workplace issues involving COVID-19.