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Get prepared: 6 tips to prevent respiratory illness in the workplace

Get prepared: 6 tips to prevent respiratory illness in the workplaceCOVID-19 may have taken a back seat in the mindset of many Ontarians, but infectious viruses and agents including colds and flus, can still affect your employees and your workplace. As you plan for the busy season, how can your business prepare?

In September 2022, the province made changes to its public health guidance for COVID-19 as part of a new, all respiratory virus approach. According to the guidelines, people with COVID symptoms no longer must isolate for five days; instead, they should stay home while sick, wear a mask for 10 days following illness, and only return to work 24 hours after symptoms improve. 

The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (MLITSD) advises workplaces to "reflect on the new guidelines" when developing their respiratory illness prevention plan. Implementing stricter measures to prevent respiratory illness is not mandated by the government, but up to employers to assess their risks and determine their individual policies. 

"Employers can always go above and beyond government requirements," says WSPS Health and Safety Consultant Pam Patry. "The policies and procedures you implemented during the height of the pandemic are still useful as best practices. In the event of an outbreak, or if the workplace is at high risk, employers need to do everything possible to protect workers." 

6 tips for preventing the spread of respiratory diseases 

Your COVID-19 Safety Plan takes a layered approach to controls that will protect against transmission of other respiratory diseases as well. Incorporate these six tips: 

  1. Ensure ventilation, barriers and sanitation controls are in place. "Most respiratory diseases are spread by air, or by touching contaminated surfaces," says Pam. Increase fresh air flow in your HVAC system and change or upgrade filters. Re-inventory your sanitation supplies, and re-institute regular cleanings of high-touch surfaces if they have stopped. Consider keeping your plexiglass barriers in place. "They continue to be effective for preventing the spread of infectious diseases, like COVID and flu." 
  2. If you incorporate the new public health guidelines into your prevention plan, enforce them. Make sure people who are sick with COVID, flu, or other respiratory illness, go home or stay home until they are well. Consider implementing a sick time policy. Ensure masks are worn by returning workers for a full 10 days from the start of the illness. Communicate the new guidelines to the workplace. 
  3. Monitor the spread of illness in the general population and in your workplace. Check your local public health unit website and provincial sources regularly for COVID-19 updates. "If workers seem under the weather, advise them to go home and take a COVID test," says Pam. Respond quickly to any sign of spread. For example, if you notice a spike in one area of the business, how will you control the infection and prevent it from spreading to other people? If possible, you may decide to send workers in that area home, institute masking, or keep people in that area separate from the rest of the workforce. 
  4. Prepare employees for the possibility of stronger controls, like a return to masking. Explain why this might be necessary and under what circumstances. Masking is considered a best practice since they are highly effective at preventing the spread of COVID, flu, colds and other respiratory diseases, while also keeping the wearer safe. The MLITSD has updated its Using Masks in the Workplace page to include information on mask effectiveness, and guidance on proper fit, filtration and selection. 
  5. Anticipate resistance. "As you are re-creating or continuing to implement policies or procedures, try to get buy in. Pitch it in a positive way. We are doing this to protect you and your family, and to keep us all working." 
  6. Encourage workers to get vaccinated for COVID and the flu. "Make it easy for them," says Pam. "Post locations of clinics or pharmacies and allow time off work if required to get the shot." The bivalent vaccine is aimed at combatting the original strain of COVID and the Omicron BA.1 subvariant. A vaccine targeting the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, which are now dominant in Ontario and believed to be the most transmissible variants so far, is also in the works. "Getting a flu vaccine is also highly recommended because after two years of near dormancy, we may see soaring cases this season." 

Health and Safety Resources 

Access free checklists, articles, resources, and more on agriculture safety on WSPS.CA/agriculture.