Since its appearance in December 2019, the media has been reporting daily on developments regarding the new coronavirus that has developed in the city of Wuhan in China. On January 27, 2020, the first case of contamination in Canada was confirmed. The World Health Organization is following developments closely, as are public health authorities in Canada. While there is no reason to panic, employers have a vested interest in preparing for an unusual situation. Although this may not necessarily be the case at this time, experts agree that the risks of a possible pandemic are very real. The following are a few thoughts to help Quebec and Canadian companies prepare for the oncoming storm.
The primary consequence of a pandemic will be a significant increase in absenteeism. In fact, an employer can expect to deal with several types of absences during such a period. The first type will involve those employees infected with the virus. Public health messages will invite these individuals to stay home. There will likewise be employees who will need to care for an immediate family member and who cannot report to work. The next type will involve employees quarantined because they have been in contact with individuals infected with the disease. The employer may initiate this isolation to limit the risk of contamination or it may be based on a physician’s opinion as part of a medical protocol. Another type of absence involves employees who will refuse to report to work for fear of being contaminated in the workplace or in their commute (public transport) to work. Some employees will be absent because of a preventive withdrawal for a precarious medical condition or pregnancy and because the workplace represents a high risk for them.
Refusal to work
Some employees may exercise the right to refuse under health and safety legislation. This legislation provides that employees who have reasonable grounds to believe that there is a risk to their health in the performance of their work have the right to refuse to work.
However, to date, the Public Health Branch has issued no directive. If, as in the past, it is found that an employer who has implemented the recommendations eventually suggested by an organization such as Urgence Québec, has taken the measures to reduce the risk to its workers as much as possible, the right to refuse will not apply. It remains to be seen how the CNESST, which manages the exercise of the right to refuse, will react. This should encourage employers to put in place the preventive and management measures that may be suggested.
The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms provides that no one may discriminate in a person’s working conditions. Disability is one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Generally speaking, a common cold or flu is not considered a disability in the context of the Charter. However, during a pandemic, being infected with a virus could be. It is, therefore, essential to keep human rights issues in mind when developing business continuity plans or when requiring certain “at-risk” employees not to report to work.
Privacy vs. health and safety
Access to employee medical information for short-term absences is still a controversial issue. Generally, access to such information is limited unless there are exceptional circumstances (e.g., abusive or suspicious absences). However, in the event of a pandemic, an employer must be able to ask employees specific questions to minimize the risks.
In fact, occupational health and safety legislation, as well as the Civil Code, clearly state that an employer must take the necessary measures to protect the health and safety of its employees. To do so, managers will need to be familiar with the symptoms of the virus and question any employee who is absent from work about the presence of these symptoms – the protection of other employees is at stake.
It is also recognized that requiring employees to be vaccinated (assuming that an effective vaccine exists or is developed) is not possible. On the other hand, for example, when an employee returns from a trip to a high-risk area, it may be appropriate to require that they undergo a quarantine protocol before they can physically re-enter the workplace if they have not been vaccinated.
Several preventive measures exist to limit contagion in the workplace. Here are just a few of them:
- Vaccination (if possible);
- Reminder of basic hygiene rules:
- wash your hands;
- cough into the crease of your elbow;
- Distribution of antiseptic products;
- Disinfection of workstations used by several people as well as high-traffic areas;
- Postponing business travel by encouraging teleconferences.
Therefore, it is up to employers to take the means best adapted to their reality to help limit the risks of spreading.
Operations (business continuity plan)
The risks of pandemics in past years (such as SARS or H1N1) have led many companies to adopt a business continuity plan. The present situation may be an opportunity to review these plans and adjust them as needed.
At a minimum, considerations such as human, material and financial resource requirements must be taken into account. In addition, the identification of operations that can be completely shut down and the business partners who will be affected is essential.
Whatever happens with this new coronavirus, companies need to be prepared for this kind of situation because history is sure to repeat itself. In a context where international travel is more accessible and increasingly frequent, the possibility of a real pandemic is no longer merely a science-fiction scenario.