Authors: John Agioritis, Tom Richards
On April 24, 2020, the government of Saskatchewan unveiled “Re-Open Saskatchewan: A Plan to Re-open the Provincial Economy” (the “Plan”). The Plan creates a program to re-open the provincial economy in five phases.
Notably, a substantial portion of the Plan outlines a number of workplace health and safety obligations (OHS), public health considerations and “guidelines” that employers need to consider in order to ensure the continued well-being of their employees and to create a safe environment for the public to do business in the province. More specific guidelines are also laid out in the Plan for certain industries, services and activities performed by certain employers.
A close reading of the Plan indicates that at least some of the “guidelines” are likely better identified as minimum public health and safety requirements that all employers will need to take during the five phases of the re-opening. In addition, the Plan raises a number of specific workplace safety consideration for employers to consider during the re-opening phases, all of which would be best addressed by a COVID-19 exposure control plan.
This blog provides an overview of the general workplace guidelines and OHS obligations mandated by the Plan, exposure control considerations outlined in the Plan that will help employers deal with the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace, and industry specific considerations covered by the Plan.
The General Workplace Guidelines
Although the OHS and public health considerations detailed in the Plan are identified as “general workplace guidelines” and COVID-19 “response guidelines”, the Plan repeatedly states that businesses operating in Saskatchewan during the re-opening “must operate according to” and “must be in compliance with” the general workplace guidelines found on pages 10 to 12 of the Plan. The general workplace guidelines contain the following components: general workplace information; cleaning, disinfection and personal protective equipment (PPE); and worker health/preventative measures. These general workplace guidelines apply to “all workplaces in Saskatchewan” and will continue to “apply to all workplaces as restrictions are lifted and businesses are brought back into service” (page 10).
The Plan also includes generally applicable guidelines for the following public health and workplace safety issues:
- Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection;
- Appropriate Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE);
- Infection Prevention and Exposure Control; and
- Cloth Masks Guidelines
Among other things, the general workplace guidelines in the plan indicate:
- Workplaces are exempt from the restriction on indoor and outdoor gatherings of 10 or more people. However, two-metre distancing between individuals should still be maintained. If this is not possible, other measures should be used, such as self-monitoring of personal health or supervision by “Infection Prevention and Control” or “Occupational Health and Safety” staff in the workplace.
- Commonly touched areas and shared equipment must be cleaned and disinfected at least twice daily, or when visibly soiled. These include light switches, door handles, toilets, taps, handrails, countertops, mobile devices and keyboards.
- Assign staff to dedicated work areas as much as possible. Discourage them from sharing phones, desks, offices and other tools and equipment.
- Employees should be provided access to tissues, no-touch trash receptacles, hand soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizers approved by Health Canada (DIN or NPN number), disinfectants and disposable towels.
- If PPE is required, there must be protocols for donning and doffing the equipment, as well as instructions for disposing of it. Employers that created policies to address COVID-19 are encouraged to re-examine their policies to ensure that valuable PPE resources are not diverted from the health-care system.
- All businesses must have a workplace illness policy which deals with various issues including the requirement for sick employees to stay home or be sent home from work and disinfection of work areas of a sick worker.
Those businesses which do not have physical distancing plans in place or workplace illness policies that deal with infection in the workplace and increased absenteeism due to COVID-19 would be well-advised to implement such policies prior to re-opening.
Creating a COVID-19 Exposure Control Plan
The Plan encourages employers to ask themselves a very important question prior to re-opening: “What should I do as an employer to ensure my employees are protected?” (see page 16).
That question has legal ramifications under the Public Health Order, The Saskatchewan Employment Act and The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 1996, therefore employers would be well-advised to consider the question carefully to avoid public health risks, significant fines and penalties and reputational issues arising from COVID-19 outbreaks in their workplace. Employers in other provinces struggling with large outbreaks of COVID-19 in their workplaces have not been immune from public health and occupational health and safety investigations during the pandemic.
Importantly, the Plan states that the physical distancing, self-isolation, pre-access screening and PPE requirements contained in “Orders from the Provincial Health Officer and support from the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety represent the minimum standard that employers must meet.” (page 16)
In that regard, the Plan encourages employers to consider addressing the following issues and ask themselves specific questions to deal with operating a business in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (pages 16 to 17):
Communication to Workers and Reporting of Concerns
- How are you telling your workers about COVID-19 (i.e. the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace?)
- Do you have a system in place where workers can inform you of concerns relating to being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace?
Identifying Exposure Hazards and Developing Exposure Control Measures
Crucially, the Plan directs employers to undertake a hazard analysis of a workplace. Among other things, employers are encouraged to ask themselves the following questions to determine whether they have undertaken a proper hazard analysis:
- What are you doing to prevent your workers from being exposed to COVID-19?
- Have controls been developed that will eliminate or minimize the risk of exposure?
Controlling the Number of People and Workers on Site
- How is the number of persons at a workplace being controlled? Can you stagger shifts to reduce the number of workers? Can some workers work from home?
- Can the employer prioritize work that needs to be done at the workplace to help business operate as close to normal as possible?
- If you have workers who need to come to the workplace, how are you ensuring that steps are being taken to reduce their risk of COVID-19 exposure?
- How can you position workers to allow for physical distancing between other workers and customers?
Auditing the Exposure Control Plan for Effectiveness
- How is the employer checking and tracking whether the above steps are being taken?
The foregoing questions may not be easy to answer and will undoubtedly have significant practical implications for many businesses. However, they are issues that every employer in Saskatchewan should be considering when creating a “COVID-19 Exposure Control Plan” to manage the health and safety of their workers and the public as they plan to re-open their businesses.
MLT Aikins has considerable experience assisting all kinds of employers navigate their way through their health and safety obligations, including helping employers develop tailored Exposure Control Plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace during this pandemic.
Specific Health and Safety Guidelines for Specific Activities, Services and Industries
The Plan also contains a number of particular guidelines for employer OHS obligations in the context of COVID-19. These guidelines are organized by the nature of the service that the employer provides. Industries, services and activities that have guidelines outlined in the Plan are as follows:
- Delivery and mail;
- Workplace food and accommodations;
- Hotels and motels with guests self-isolating in rooms
- Medical professional
- Grocery stores
- Clothing and retail
- Personal care services
- Greenhouse and landscaping
- Golf courses; and
- Parks and campgrounds.
Employers would be well-suited to carefully consider the specific health and safety guidelines outlined for these activities, industries and services to see whether they apply to their operations in order to ensure that they have addressed the issues identified by the Government. In some respects, the information provided is quite detailed.
Since the Plan does not provide a definite timeline for when the public health and social gathering restrictions will be lifted, concepts like physical distancing, increased sanitation, PPE and exposure control plans could be a part of our communities and the economy for some time. The MLT Aikins occupational health and safety and labour and employment team will continue to monitor the situation and provide additional updates on legal issues that may impact employers. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to reach out to our team if you require assistance in ensuring your organization is prepared to reopen, and particularly if you are unsure as to how your business can satisfy its workplace safety and legal obligations under the Plan.
Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.