WORKPLACE GUIDANCE FOR BUSINESS OWNERS

By Carola Mittag

Posted Apr 24th, 2020 in Tips & News

Work Refusals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

It is only human to be concerned for yourself and for others.


Employers must take reasonable care to maintain a healthy, safe workplace at all times under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, including during a pandemic. However, at the same time, workers have the right to refuse work if they believe it will endanger themselves or other workers. This is a basic worker right entrenched in our prevention system.


An employee can refuse if there is a legitimate threat to their safety, and the circumstances pass “the reasonable persons test” — would any reasonable person, in the same circumstance, consider their heath to be at risk? There are situations that may prompt an employee to refuse work.

  • A confirmed or possible case of COVID-19 in the workplace
    • If a worker is told they must work next to a person exhibiting all the symptoms of COVID-19, it is reasonable to believe their health would be at risk and they would be justified in refusing work.
  • A confirmed case of COVID-19 in a worker's immediate family
  • The risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 from others who may enter a workplace (clients, contractors, visitors)
  • A worker who is especially vulnerable (is over age 65, has a weakened immune system, has an existing medical condition) and may not therefore, want to come to work
    • Those with underlying health issues, or the elderly population, known to be more vulnerable, could potentially be granted sick leave during the pandemic.
    • A worker concerned about workplace systems and/or control methods, including PPE

How to Respond When Concerns are Raised

  • Be transparent and receptive to worker concerns, encouraging open communication.
  • Involve workers in improving issues that would alleviate their concerns.
  • Flexibility and accommodation are key,  as one solution does not fit all workers.
  • Be quick to make changes as need arises or changes.
  • Provide a safe work environment by adjusting workspaces to allow for two-metre separation between people.
  • Stagger shifts so certain people work certain hours, having as few people in the workplace at the same time as possible.
  •  Clean and sanitize the workplace frequently.

Workplace Management for Communicable Diseases Including COVID-19

  • Anyone who appears to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to the workplace, or becomes sick while at the workplace, must be sent home immediately, and asked to maintain at least 2 meters of distance from others while exiting the business. 
  • Sick individuals must follow hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, as necessary, as they are exiting the facility.
  • Arrangements should be made for transport home where needed; public transportation like buses, taxis or ride sharing should be avoided.
  • Once a sick individual has left the workplace, clean and disinfect all surfaces and areas that they may have come into contact with.

Driver with Mask

Hygiene and Cleaning Practices


Hygiene for staff, volunteers and customers

  • Employers must ensure that respiratory etiquette, e.g. coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow, promptly disposing of used tissues in the trash) is followed.
  • Employers must promote and facilitate frequent and proper hand hygiene for everyone.
  • Businesses must have sufficient means for everyone to perform frequent hand hygiene. This can be done using sinks supplied with soap and water, or with alcohol-based hand sanitizer (greater than 60% alcohol content).
  • Employers must instruct everyone in the workplace to wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (greater than 60% alcohol content).
  • Hand washing with soap and water is required if anyone has visibly dirty hands.
  • Glove use alone is not a substitute for hand hygiene. Hands must be cleaned after removing gloves!

Cleaning Guidance

  • Cleaning refers to the removal of visible soil. Cleaning does not kill germs but is highly effective at removing them from a surface. Disinfecting refers to using a chemical to kill germs on a surface. Disinfecting is only effective after surfaces have been cleaned.
    • Use a “wipe-twice” method to clean and disinfect. Wipe surfaces with a cleaning agent to clean off soil and wipe again with a disinfectant.
  • Regular household cleaning and disinfecting products are effective against COVID-19 when used according to the directions on the label.
    •  Use a disinfectant that has a Drug Identification Number (DIN) and a virucidal claim (efficacy against viruses). Alternatively, use a bleach-water solution with 100 ml of bleach to 900 ml water. 
    •  Health Canada has approved several hard-surface disinfectants and hand sanitizers for use against COVID-19. Use these lists to look up the DIN number of the product you are using or to find an approved product. Make sure to follow instructions on the product label to disinfect effectively. 
    • Develop and implement procedures for increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of high traffic areas, common areas, public washrooms and showering facilities. 
  •      Frequently clean and disinfect high touch/shared surfaces such as:
    • Doorknobs, light switches, toilet handles, faucets and taps, elevator buttons, railings 
    • Phones, computers, remote controls, keyboards, desktops, conference room equipment, cash registers, surface counters, customer service counters, menus 
    •  Equipment handles, hand tools, machinery control panels, seat belt buckles, joysticks, steering wheels and controls on powered mobile equipment  
    • Staff rooms, kitchens, washrooms 
  • Disposable towels and spray cleaners, or disposable wipes, should be available to staff, volunteers and (as necessary) patrons to regularly clean commonly used surfaces. 
  • Remove all communal items that cannot be easily cleaned, such as newspapers, magazines, and stuffed toys. 

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

  • Business owners must conduct hazard assessments to identify existing and potential hazards related to COVID-19. Where elimination of these hazards is not possible or reasonable, they must be controlled.
  • When hazards related to COVID-19 cannot be completely eliminated, the following hierarchy of controls is required:  
    • First choice: Engineering controls - These control the hazard at the source. Examples include placing barriers or partitions between staff and the hazard, or ventilation. 
    • Second choice: Administrative controls  - These controls change the way workers, volunteer and patrons interact. Examples include policies for physical distancing, limiting hours of operations and respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.
    • Third choice: PPE  - PPE is generally only necessary when hazards related to COVID-19 cannot be completely eliminated by administrative and engineering controls. PPE controls the hazard at the worker, volunteer or client level.
      • PPE must be chosen that is appropriate to the hazard. Examples of PPE include gloves, eye protection, face protections and masks.
        §If it is determined that respiratory PPE is required for staff and volunteers, a code of practice is required which sets out information on the selection, maintenance and use of respiratory protective equipment.
      • PPE must be maintained in good condition so it can perform its intended function to protect staff and volunteers.
      • If a hazard assessment determines that PPE is necessary, the business owner must ensure that the PPE fits the wearers effectively. 
      • Respiratory PPE that depends on a facial seal must be fit tested to ensure its efficacy.
      • PPE that cannot be cleaned and disinfected should be disposed of after use. Reusable PPE must be clearly labelled with its assigned user’s name and be stored separately from other PPE.
When a hazard cannot be controlled by a single control method, the business owner may implement a combination of the three controls to provide an acceptable level of safety.

Physical Distancing and Gatherings

  • Gatherings of more than 5 people are prohibited; however, this does not prohibit businesses from having more than 15 workers in a workplace. 
  • All businesses must:
    • Prevent the risk of transmission of infection amongst workers, volunteers or (as applicable) clients; and
    • Provide for rapid response if a worker, volunteer or member of the public develops symptoms of illness while at the workplace; and
    • Maintain high levels of hygiene.
  • Examples of how to prevent the risk of transmission amongst workers, volunteers and patrons include:
    • Maintaining a two-meter separation wherever possible between individuals (e.g., workers, volunteers, patrons) at any one time.
    • Restricting the number of patrons in a business at any one time. 
    • Installing a physical barrier, such as a cubicle, partition or window, to separate workers, volunteers and patrons.
    • Increasing separation between desks and workstations.
    • Eliminating or re-structuring of non-essential gatherings (e.g. meetings, training classes) of staff, patrons and volunteers. Typically, this involves moving in-person meetings to virtual media platforms like teleconference or video conference.
    • Limiting the number of people in shared spaces (such as lunchrooms) or staggering break periods. 
    • Limiting hours of operation or setting specific hours for at-risk patrons.
    • Implementing contact-free modes of patron interaction such as home-delivery of goods or curb-side pickup of items. 
    • Placement of reference markers. e.g. markings on the floor in grocery line-ups that set out two-meter distances.

Additional Considerations·     

  • Prepare for increased absenteeism due to illness among staff, volunteers and their families.
  • Conduct hazard assessments on all tasks performed in the business. Consider business closure or suspension of specific tasks where the risk of transmission of infection to staff, volunteers and patrons cannot be mitigated.
  • Order individuals who have returned from travel outside of Canada to be in isolation for a minimum of 14 days. 
    • If an individual becomes sick during the 14-day isolation period, they must remain in isolation for an additional 14 days from the start of symptoms, or until the symptoms resolve, whichever is longer.
  • All non-essential travel outside Canada should be cancelled, as per the Government of Canada’s travel advisory.  


 COVID-19: Resources for Canadian Businesses


Government of Canada – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Public Health Ontario Fact Sheets – COVID-19 Resources


We are Workplace Safety Group, one of Canada’s leading health and safety consultants and trainers. As safety experts, we offer a complete range of safety services and training.  We are fanatics about safety. Our safety blog is one of our best resources for staying up-to-date on new product releases, changes to MLTSD standards and industry-specific guides. Not sure where to start exploring?

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