How to control the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in the workplace?

For the past few weeks, Québec has been preparing the return to work, as well as its gradual deconfinement, to ensure economic recovery, but since workplaces contribute to the transmission of COVID-19 [1], employers have a duty to put in place appropriate sanitary measures within their organizations to prevent and control the spread of this virus. These measures also include training employees so that they have the knowledge they need to execute their jobs safely [2].

It should be noted that any employee is entitled to report his employer to the Commission des normes, de l’assurance, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail if he considers that his employer has not implemented reasonable measures in the circumstances. In fact, according to article 51 of the Act respecting occupational health and safety, the employer has the obligation to take “the necessary measures to protect the health and ensure the safety and physical integrity of his worker”.

Some government authorities and associations have developed tools to guide employers in developing preventive measures within their companies.

1. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)

In order to plan the measures that will allow a company to continue to provide its main products and services, the CCOHS has prepared a guide to assist employers with the development of a business continuity plan in the event of an infectious disease. For the complete document, you can visit their website.

In summary, the CCOHS first advises an employer to assess the key components to his business, as well as the impact on his activities in the event of their loss. Employers must be prepared for a higher rate of absenteeism from employees.

In addition, the CCOHS recommends taking the following steps to implement an effective Back-to-Work Protocol [3]:

  • Develop a clearly defined and documented policy
  • Develop a response plan
  • Implement the plan
  • Test/maintain/audit.

Here are some solutions [4]:

  • Flexible Work Options: Working remotely and providing flexible hours
  • Alternative Staffing Arrangements: Video conferences, distance between the clients and the employees, reduce the number of persons in the working space
  • Transportation: Examine the possibilities of carpooling or private bus driver for employees who use public transport daily

2. Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST)

The CNESST, for its part, has put in place a guide to health standards in the workplace to inform employers how to manage health and safety in the context of COVID-19. For more information, please consult the PDF Guide.

Essentially, the risk mitigation strategies that the employer should keep in mind are as follow [5]:

  • Exclusion of symptomatic people from the workplace
  • Physical distancing
  • Hand washing
  • Respiratory etiquette
  • Maintaining hygiene measures with tools, equipment and frequently touched surfaces

These strategies must, however, be combined to be effective.

The CNESST also offers a COVID-19 toolkit on its website (memory aids, lists, posters and others) to enable the implementation of a protocol.

3. L’Association paritaire pour la santé et la sécurité du travail, secteur « affaires municipales » (APSAM)

The APSAM specifies that the best protection to date continues to be working remotely. However, when this solution cannot be applied, APSAM shares other measures to control exposure to COVID-19. To access the examples and view the effectiveness of these measures, please visit their website.

Recommendations and communication of the protocol

The Protocol presented to employees should generally include the following measures [6] :

  • Conduct a workplace inspection before the return to work
  • Evaluate if the work methods comply with the guidelines issued by the Government
  • Submit a daily self-assessment form to all employees before going to work and implement an isolation procedure for those who show symptoms
  • Inform employees and customers using emails and posters of guidelines for physical distancing to limit interpersonal contact
  • Install posters at key places in the work environment for hygienic measurements and ensure that all disinfectants necessary for cleaning hands and frequently touched surfaces are available to each employee
  • Inform employees about mass gatherings to minimize face-to-face meetings and opt for video conferences
  • Put in place physical barrier solutions when possible and if necessary
  • Put in place a mechanism known to all to receive reports of any dangerous situation and everyone’s comments

When the protocol is finalized, the employer should communicate the protocol by email to all employees and notify them of his intentions to reopen. It may also be appropriate to display this protocol in the workplace as a reminder.

Finally, it is recommended that you meet with all the employees (in person by applying the distancing measures or by videoconference) to explain the protocol, answer questions and reiterate the following

  • Recall the employer’s commitment to safety
  • Share expectations and objectives concerning employees
  • Inform employees of the risks
  • Provide a reminder for the vigilance of those who may develop symptoms or have been in contact with the virus
  • Encourage employees to report any dangerous situation they become aware of

Any change or update of the protocol should be transmitted according to the rules detailed above.

Right to refuse unsafe work

Under the law, an employee may refuse to return to the workplace if there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the performance of the work will result in the employee being exposed to danger for his health, safety, physical integrity” [8].

However, this right is not automatic, and the employee must present a problematic state of health to refuse to return to work. [9]

The CNESST website lists the rules relating to the right of refusal, as well as the remedies applicable in the event of disagreement between the employee and the employer.

Telework: benefits and harmful effects

While many companies remain fully operational and continue to work remotely, the risks and psychosocial impacts of this solution should not be overlooked. Physical isolation is an equally important issue to be considered by the employer in the implementation of his protocol.

The Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST) offers potential solutions for effective teleworking to avoid harmful effects on the psychological health of employees.

In other words, the establishment of a COVID-19 control protocol by companies is more than necessary and must be evaluated sooner, rather than later, even if the recovery phase does not begin immediately.

Experts say that the pandemic can strike in several waves and that these generally last three to nine months [10]. It is, therefore, necessary for the employer to adopt flexible solutions and to question the various scenarios of COVID-19 to correct health measures as part of his usual, new and ad hoc activities.

By Mance Ménard St-Pierre




[4] See note 3

[5] See note 2




[9] See note 8

[10] See note 3