As the number of reported cases of the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) rises worldwide, PSAC members are increasingly concerned for their health and safety at work.
All PSAC members, including our members working abroad, have the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace. The purpose of this health and safety bulletin is to ensure that our members know what their health and safety rights are when dealing with their employer.
What is the Coronavirus?
Little is known yet about the 2019-nCoV, a cousin of the SARS virus which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, doesn’t respond to antibiotic treatments and is believed to have originated at a market in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization (WHO) has decided that it’s still too early to declare a global health emergency because of the limited number of cases worldwide and China's efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are common among animals. The viruses can make people sick, usually with a mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illness, similar to a common cold. For those with a weakened immune system, the elderly and the very young, there's a chance the virus could cause a lower, and much more serious, respiratory tract illness like a pneumonia or bronchitis. There are a handful of human coronaviruses that are known to be deadly.
Who is at risk for occupational exposure?
The risk of infection is greatest for persons living with or caring for an individual with the Coronavirus. This includes health care workers, ambulatory care workers and other community care workers treating patients with the virus or responding to medical emergencies involving persons infected with the virus. Indeed, any worker in direct contact with the public is at risk. They may include airline personnel, airport personnel, border services and immigration employees, passport offices employees, employment insurance personnel, food inspection employees, refugee board employees, laboratory workers, foreign affairs employees, parole officers, wildlife officers, environmental pollution officers, veterans’ affairs employees, etc. Anyone who comes in close proximity with a possibly infected individual could be at risk for contracting the coronavirus.
Six things workers need to know:
- Know what steps your workplace has in place for a pandemic. Ask if there is a business continuity plan. Find out what role you have in this plan.
- Participate in any training and education your workplace offers. During a pandemic, it will be essential for various workers to be able to cover some of the duties normally done by co-workers. Help train others to do aspects of your job as well.
- Know what “leave” policies your workplace has in place for sick leave, or for caring for your family. Knowing what options are available ahead of time will help you know what arrangements you need to make.
- Wash your hands after using the washroom, before eating, and after touching common surfaces such as doorknobs, railings and telephones. Do not touch your eyes, mouth or nose, as this helps the virus enter your body more easily. Follow personal hygiene steps such as coughing into your arm, to help slow the spread of the virus. Use protective equipment provided by your employer such as N95 masks and/or safety gloves.
- Have a home emergency kit and a personal or family plan for a pandemic. Write down and post your family and work contact information. If you are at home with the flu, or to take care of a family member, be sure to keep in touch with your workplace so they know what your situation is. Also, let your workplace know if you have any medical conditions that may be an issue should you get sick at work.
- Stay home if you have the flu – or think you have the flu. Staying home when sick and washing your hands are the most effective ways to help slow the spread of a virus.
Pandemics and workplace laws
Due diligence is commonly addressed in health and safety legislation under the "general duty clause," which places a duty on employers to take all reasonable precautions to prevent injuries or accidents in the workplace. The general duty clause also applies to all situations that are not addressed elsewhere in the occupational health and safety legislation.
For example, to reduce the effects of a pandemic, an employer should practice due diligence by:
- Encouraging good hygiene, including hand washing. This includes providing hand sanitation stations.
- Ensuring cleanliness of surfaces where the virus may reside (door handles, elevator buttons, shared telephones, etc.).
- Maintaining good ventilation.
- Having up-to-date sick or leave policies that are clearly communicated to staff.
- Encouraging employees to stay home when they are sick.
- Allowing for employees to work at home or in staggered shifts.
- Having a policy where people with flu symptoms are not allowed access to the workplace – this includes workers, contractors and visitors.
Employers have a responsibility to provide appropriate training and education to all of their employees.
Workplace health and safety committees have a legal right to participate in the development of any workplace prevention and preparation strategies dealing with the virus.
PSAC members who sit on joint health and safety committees should request that a special meeting be called in order to review the workplace pandemic influenza plans that should be already in place.
Likewise, in smaller workplaces, where there is no committee, the PSAC member who is the health and safety representative for the workplace should request a meeting with the employer in order to review these plans.
Monitoring the situation
The Public Health Agency of Canada is working with international partners, including the World Health Organization, to actively monitor the situation. PSAC Health and Safety representatives and their partners are also monitoring the situation very closely.