Manufacturers and their social contract in avoiding workplace outbreaks
by Denis Sanchez, Chartered MCIPS, MSc, MA
So far there have been over 26,000 workers compensation claims filed for individuals who contracted COVID-19 while at work.
In the past year, governments and employers have implemented several measures to mitigate the risk of propagating COVID-19: physical distancing and mobility restrictions aim to limit the movement of people to contain or slow down the spread of the virus, socio-economic restrictions target activities that involve social gatherings, and communication measures support all risk mitigation steps.
Reopening the Workplace after COVID-19
Quebec and Ontario implemented province-wide shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. With a seven-day average hovering over 3,000 new cases in the first two weeks of the year, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer has recently projected that the province will need to see less than 1,000 new cases per day before lockdown measures are lifted.
Due to the restrictions imposed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, many workers were temporarily laid off and others moved to remote work.
Both returning to work and remaining open during the restrictions carry unique sets of challenges for employers.
Workers are also under pressure due to community psychological stressors: periodic announcements of new government-imposed restrictions, the constant news of cases often increasing or not being significantly reduced (the curve that does not flatten), increased personal financial pressure, social isolation, fear of job loss and overall economic uncertainty.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, it is important to remember that employers have a duty to provide a safe work environment for workers, which includes employees, contractors, and visitors. Failure to do so will lead to liability under OHS laws and expose the employer to fines, penalties, as well as civil and criminal liability.
“Effective Sept. 25, 2020 and under O. Reg 364/20 of the Ontario Reopening Act, all Ontario businesses must screen workers and essential visitors who enter their premises.”
In Alberta, the provincial Workers Compensation Board has started investigating cases of COVID-19 related deaths. In one case, the RCMP has opened a criminal investigation and the company is facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals exposed because of operating without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings. The complaint is filed under the Westray Law which, as part of the criminal code, assigns responsibility to individuals to take “reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm” to workers.
As for the rest of Canada, so far there have been over 26,000 workers compensation claims filed for individuals who contracted COVID-19 while at work. Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta account for 51%, 30% and 11%, respectively, of all claims filed. However, this is only the number that has been reported – the true figures are much higher.
In Ontario, unions have filed complaints against several employers with Toronto and Peel Region police alleging criminal negligence and failure to provide personal protective equipment. At the start of the year, the City of Toronto announced stricter guidelines for employers to report COVID-19 cases and committed to publicly naming workplaces where there has been an outbreak.
The reputational damage to these businesses is bound to be severe and its impact will be manyfold, from a decline in employee morale and productivity to lower financial results through a decline in sales.
Over the course of 2020, COVID-19 impacted the way we live in ways that we could not foresee just a year ago. 2021 looks promising with the rollout of new vaccination campaigns. The full impact, however, is not over and both businesses and local communities will be affected for years to come.
As employers, it is part of our social contract to help restrict the spread of the virus through risk mitigation measures that protect our employees, our supply chain, and the communities we serve. We all have a role to play. After all, it is no wonder that one of the most repeated phrases of the past twelve months has been: We are all in this together!
Denis Sanchez is Cognibox‘s Vice President of Operational Excellence, creating programs to support risk reduction strategies at manufacturing facilities.