With the rise in COVID-19 cases in Ontario during the fourth wave of the pandemic, there is an increasing sense of responsibility for employers to keep the work environment safe for their employees and accommodate their needs. COVID-19 and the omicron variant have significantly transformed places of employment, as well as many other areas within the province. Employers now require policies on a variety of pandemic-related health and safety issues, including employee screening, use of masks in the workplace, and vaccination requirements.
Under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers must:
- Ensure workers know about any potential hazards by providing them with information, instruction and supervision on how to work safely
- Ensure supervisors know what is necessary to protect the health and safety of workers
- Create workplace health and safety policies
- Ensure workplace individuals follow the rules and regulations of the workplace
- Ensure workers all have appropriate protective equipment and are trained on how to use it
- Ensuring to take all precautions reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from being hurt or getting work-related illnesses
If there is a potential case of COVID-19 or risk of exposure, employers must tell symptomatic workers to remain at home. Employers must take any reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of their workers and should conduct a risk assessment to determine whether they need to shut down the workplace during an outbreak of cases or a high level of exposure.
The Ministry of Health in Ontario has released a guideline for COVID-19 standards in the workplace. There is a list of resources to prevent the virus from spreading in the workplace, such as:
- Case and contact management
- Outbreak assessment and management
- Coordination and communication
The Ministry of Health suggests that various administrative controls be put into place, such as:
- The promotion of vaccination among workers
- Use of physical distancing
- Worker screening
- Regular testing
- Environmental cleaning
- Requirement of personal protective equipment
An employer’s duty to accommodate arises from the Ontario Human Rights Code. Work-from-home accommodations should be allowed for those who require them due to disability or health reasons that limit their work performance or put them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. The Code requires accommodations to be made to the point of undue hardship. These are important considerations for employers to keep in mind when setting out workplace health and safety policies.
Although you do have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it involves your health and medical records, your employer can request more information regarding your health to protect the health and safety of employees from the risk of COVID-19 infection.
According to a series of questions and answers released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Code recognizes that employers have a duty to accommodate the needs of employers who test positive for COVID-19 and may request medical information to verify an employee’s need for individual accommodation. However, the request for and disclosure of this personal health information must comply with privacy laws.
The requirement and frequency of testing must be reasonable in the circumstances and the particular workplace. For example, the nature of some workplaces requires more testing, such as hospitals, long-term care homes, and schools.
Ontario’s Occupational Health & Safety Act does not have a requirement for businesses to implement a mandatory vaccination policy. Many employers choose to do so to protect the health and safety of their employees and to demonstrate their efforts to provide a safe workplace. Employers should ensure they keep up-to-date on current Occupational Health and Safety guidelines, as well as any other provincial recommendations and safety plans released to protect workers from COVID-19 exposure in the workplace.
For advice on employer liability and other employment or labour law matters, contact Toronto employment lawyers Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP. Our reputation for excellence in employment and labour law is known throughout the industry, and we can find innovative solutions for you. Contact us online or by phone at 416-364-9599 to schedule a consultation.
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