During the global COVID-19 pandemic, governments of almost all industrialized countries took unprecedented actions to restrict economic and social activity in order to limit the spread of the virus – including shuttering many workplaces and mandating work from home arrangements.
In Canada, many provinces are now “re-opening” their economies or have developed plans for doing so. Workplaces that are set to reopen or that never stopped operating are facing the unprecedented, high-stakes challenge of ensuring occupational health and safety (OHS) during the COVID-19 outbreak – which by all accounts will continue for some time.
For example, in late March, four of the construction workers building the Eglinton Crosstown LRT in Toronto were diagnosed with COVID-19 or were in self-isolation due to presumptive cases of the virus. That immediately sparked a discussion about whether construction projects could – or should – continue during the COVID-19 pandemic and about what protocols are necessary to limit workers’ risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Many of the initial responses to that challenge were developed quickly and piecemeal. Moving forward, governments and workplaces owe it to workers to take a systematic approach, based on precautionary decision-making.
As governments across Canada relaunch major economic activities, we must make OHS a key public policy priority. To begin with, workplaces need more guidance on how to properly implement social distancing, when their employees should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and what PPE to use, and how to prevent the spread of germs in workplaces. Several provincial governments have taken strong initial steps on that issue by offering online resources – but more needs to be done.
Starting immediately, governments should collaborate with workers, labour organizations, and OHS professionals to develop detailed, clear, and science-based rules for limiting the spread of COVID-19 at all types of workplaces. During that process, certified OHS professionals can be an invaluable resource to both governments and workplaces – offering deep technical knowledge of control measures, including proper choice and use of PPE and of how to implement effective safety management systems and emergency response planning at workplaces.
As economic activity scales back up, and in order to help prevent spikes of viral infection, every type of workplace will require protocols for identifying and quantifying risk, developing effective controls to protect workers and customers, and knowing what safety indicators to measure and report on – so that outcomes can be tracked and any necessary corrective actions taken.
Looking further ahead, OHS considerations must be a core element of the post-COVID-19 assessment of governments’ responses to the pandemic and preparedness for future viruses. This is a unique opportunity for workers, employers, and governments to collaborate on improving how OHS is designed and implemented. Concerns about proper workplace hygiene and mitigating the effects of close physical contact between workers were not created by COVID-19, but the pandemic has reinforced the need for strong, comprehensive OHS frameworks in every Province.
The Federal and Provincial governments should commit now to including in their post-pandemic reviews an analysis of how current OHS frameworks performed under COVID-19, with an eye to improving them for future viral threats. Those reviews should draw on contributions from workers and certified OHS professionals. In particular, governments should consider greater oversight of OHS practitioners as a key tool to ensure that employers can access certified safety professionals to prevent and respond to workplace health and safety crises.
Workplace safety must be nurtured, properly managed, and enforced, in order to prevent incidents and ensure the continued functioning of our economy. We must begin working together now to develop OHS protocols to help mitigate and respond to potential future waves of COVID-19 along with the spread of other viruses and diseases. Taking the steps outlined here would help keep workers safe in the coming months and make improved OHS outcomes a legacy of COVID-19.
Monica A. Szabo is the Governing Board Chair of the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals. She has over 25 years of experience in occupational hygiene and health and safety.