On April 30, 2020, Ontario released new sector-specific labour guidelines to help businesses operate safely in the “new reality” that the COVID-19 pandemic has created. Ontario has also promised that more sector-specific guidelines will be released in the coming weeks. Below we provide an overview of the guidelines and discuss their implications for Ontario employers.
Sectors Covered by the Guidelines
The guidelines cover all workers within the following broad sectors:
Guidelines Applicable Across Sectors
Many of the guidelines are broadly applicable across sectors, as is apparent from the fact that Ontario has included them for each of the sectors to which the guidelines apply.
For example, the guidelines provide that workers in all sectors should:
- cough and sneeze into their sleeve;
- stay home if they are sick;
- avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth; and
- wash their clothes as soon as they get home.
Similarly, a few examples of the guidelines that are applicable to employers in all sectors include:
- posting policies relevant to COVID-19;
- providing workers with ways to properly clean their hands;
- sanitizing commonly touched surfaces or areas;
- sending workers with symptoms related to the common cold, the flu, or COVID-19 home;
- sharing information and communicating each worker’s roles and responsibilities for maintaining health and safety in the workplace;
- tracking where workers have been, in case this information becomes necessary for the purposes of contact tracing; and
- conducting a risk assessment if one or more workers tests positive for COVID-19.
The guidelines for each sector also include tips on how to ensure appropriate physical distancing of at least 2 metres between workers is maintained in workplaces, a few examples of which include:
- staggering workers’ start times, breaks and lunches;
- holding meetings outside or in a large space;
- posting signage on hygiene; and
- limiting unnecessary on-site interaction between workers.
Guidelines that are Truly Sector-Specific
Only a few of the guidelines announced on April 30 are truly sector specific. For example, employers in the construction sector should limit the number of workers that can use hoists at one time and avoid the sharing of hand tools and power tools.
These guidelines will be of great interest to employers that are grappling with how they can meet their obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) in light of the unique context of the sector in which they operate during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Employers all have the broad obligation to take every precaution that is reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of their workers, but this varies in every workplace and is much more challenging for employers in the current climate.
Although the guidelines are not technically “mandatory”, they help to inform what precautions the government considers to be reasonable for employers to take in the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, failure to review and adopt as many of the guidelines as possible could even be considered evidence of an employer having failed to meet its obligations under the OHSA.
Therefore, all Ontario employers operating in sectors for which guidelines have been published should carefully review the guidelines and implement as many of them as possible so that they can ensure that they fulfill their obligations under the OHSA. Further, employers operating in sectors for which sector-specific guidelines have yet to be released should consider consulting the existing guidelines in the meantime. As discussed above, the guidelines are largely the same across sectors. Therefore, reviewing the guidelines for another sector will still provide valuable guidance to employers for whom sector-specific guidelines have yet to be published.
Finally, all employers should consult the guidelines sooner rather than later so that they can begin planning how to reopen their workplaces safely once they are able to do so, or modify how they are currently operating essential workplaces as appropriate.
This blog is provided as an information service and summary of workplace legal issues. This information is not intended as legal advice.