Workplace safety in the age of coronavirus

6 min read
Curtis McHale

Over the last few months, COVID-19 has gone from something happening in another country to a force to be reckoned with globally. While some businesses have shut down, many are essential and must continue to operate despite the threat to workplace safety as we all try to stop the spread of this disease.

This article is going to look at what it takes to keep workers safe in the face of COVID-19.

We’ll also examine what rights employees have when it comes to workplace wellness as well as what responsibilities they have at work. Finally, we'll look at some of the long-term workplace safety changes that may help us weather a future occurrence of a threat like COVID-19.

Employer responsibilities

As an employer, you have the responsibility to inform your employees of any known or foreseeable hazard to their health and safety while on the job.

This includes providing them with appropriate training in how to deal with any of the regular safety issues on the job, and any extra precautions they need to take as a result of COVID-19.

Risk-informed decision making

When it comes to taking extra precautions, the Government of Canada expects employers to use their risk-informed decision making guidelines to make any safety changes to their businesses.

Workplace Safety Man Wearing Face Mask
It’s an employer’s responsibility to keep workers safe while on the job.

If possible, update how you work to reduce the contact that employees have, like allowing teleworking or staggered start times.

This can keep employees from coming into contact with anyone outside those they live with, or if they do have to come into work, limit their risk.

This is specifically beneficial for those that come to work via public transit.

Staggered or flexible start and finish times can allow workers to travel at off-peak times and cut the number of people they come into contact with.


If you're dealing with shared spaces, then you'll need to increase the cleaning regimen for those spaces. That means cleaning the doorknobs and any other communal surfaces with increased frequency.

In addition, you can provide cleaning supplies to employees to give them the chance to clean their workspaces regularly.

Social distancing

For businesses that have customers entering their place of business regularly, look at limiting the number of people in your facility so that everyone can maintain a two-meter separation.

Many shop owners mark off queue lanes with tape to keep customers safely apart.

If you can't do this, then consider installing Plexiglass shields between workers and customers to help prevent transmission of COVID-19.

Related: 10 tactics to adapt your business for social distancing

Sick leave and workplace wellness

This is also a great time to relax any sick leave policies that you have so that employees can stay home if they're not feeling great.

If you usually require a note from a doctor, drop that requirement to avoid adding stress to the already busy medical system.

Workplace Safety Woman Lying on Couch

Offering unlimited sick leave during the COVID-19 crisis could also go a long way to encouraging employees to stay at home if they're not feeling great.

Employee rights

As mentioned above, employees have the right to be informed of any known or foreseeable hazards at work. This includes being given any training needed to help keep yourself and those around you safe.

Employees also have the right to participate in identifying and correcting any work-related health and safety concerns. If you must interact with people in situations where less than two metres of separation is possible, this may mean you ask for a shield to be placed between you and those you have to interact with.

If you have reasonable cause to believe that your work environment poses a danger, you have the right to refuse to work. In this case, you must inform your employer about the safety issue.

After a report, an employer is not allowed to assign the work to someone else. They must:

  • Conduct an investigation into the safety issue
  • Provide a written report of their conclusion

If they agree that there is a safety issue, the employer must explain the steps they're taking to correct the issue.

If you don't agree with the conclusion of your employer, you may continue to refuse to work.

But you must report the refusal to your employer and the workplace committee or representative. The employer and the workplace safety representative can then perform an investigation and must provide a report on the issues and any steps taken to resolve the reported safety issue.

Employee responsibilities

Workplace Safety Woman Applying Hand Sanitizer

Employees also have responsibilities to their employers in regards to workplace safety. They must use all provided safety materials and follow all procedures shown during training.

If a workplace safety representative provides direction, you must follow those procedures to help ensure your safety and the safety of your coworkers.

If you see any hazardous circumstances, you are required to report them to your employer. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Accidents
  • Non-compliance with safety procedures
  • Other hazardous occurrences

It’s going to take every one of us working together to defeat a threat like COVID-19.

Long-term safety changes

Over the long term, business owners should look at maintaining some of these changes to support ongoing workplace wellness.

  1. Allowing flexible work schedules or continuing with relaxed sick leave policies can help employees who may have just "been tough" through other sicknesses and brought colds or other minor issues to the office.
  2. Letting employees who are sick, or have sick people in their households, work from home can help reduce the overall number of sick days claimed in your company.
  3. For office layout, look at dropping open offices and allowing employees to have their own spaces to help them maintain physical distance and reduce spread of germs and viruses.

Further, continuing with increased cleaning of common surfaces and proactive cleaning of the workspace of any employee who takes a sick day can help keep your entire workforce healthy.

Time to update your workplace safety policy

In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, it's important to consider your workplace safety to help ensure that we all get to move forward safely and with minimal disruption.

Allowing flexible schedules, reducing sick leave barriers, cleaning common surfaces and providing proper safety equipment along with training, can go a long way to help us all stay healthy and safe — and our businesses open.