Worker safety has been at the forefront of the operational concerns raised by employers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the province implements its Return Plan and workplaces, including local governments, cautiously reopen their doors, there is an urgent public health interest in preventing the spread of coronavirus. To this end, WorkSafeBC has released guidelines relating to COVID-19 and Returning to Safe Operation – Phase 2 in order to help employers navigate their heightened obligations to employees. In addition, WorkSafeBC has now required all employers to develop a COVID-19 Safety Plan which outlines the policies, guidelines and procedures the employer has put in place in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
WorkSafeBC has specifically provided six steps which employers must follow when developing a COVID-19 Safety Plan (and which are discussed in greater detail in their publication, COVID-19 Safety Plan):
- Assess the risks at your workplace;
- Implement protocols to reduce the risks;
- Develop policies;
- Develop communication plans and training;
- Monitor your workplace and update your plans as needed; and
- Assess and address risks from resuming operations.
The guidelines for the implementation of COVID-19 Safety Plans put employers to the essential task of consulting with workers as to the challenges and concerns presented by a return to work and the possible vectors of transmission in the workplace. While workers are required to take reasonable care to protect their own health and safety, including frequent hand washing and staying home while ill, they also have a right to refuse work if they believe it presents an undue hazard (meaning a hazard which is unwarranted, inappropriate, excessive, or disproportionate). In the context of COVID-19, WorkSafeBC has set out that an undue hazard would be a situation in which a worker is placed at increased risk of exposure without adequate controls in place to protect them from that exposure. It is crucial, then, for employers to confer with their employees and to generate a COVID-19 Safety Plan which is sensitive to their specific concerns.
Notably, the WorkSafeBC requirement for employers to develop a COVID-19 Safety Plan has now become the subject of a Ministerial Order of May 14, 2020, in which the Provincial Health Officer has ordered all employers to do the following:
- Post a copy of your COVID-19 Safety Plan on your website, if there is one, and at the workplace so that it is readily available for review by workers, other persons who may attend the workplace to provide services and members of the public; and
- Provide a copy of your COVID-19 Safety Plan to a health officer or a WorkSafeBC officer, on request.
The Ministerial Order underscores the importance of the WorkSafeBC requirements to public health and safety. Failure to comply with WorkSafeBC requirements could result in enforcement action against an employer. An employer could also be the subject of a complaint regarding an alleged lack of compliance with WorkSafeBC requirements. As WorkSafeBC seeks to oversee enforcement of its guidelines (and, in particular, the development and implementation of COVID-19 Safety Plans), employers should be prepared for the possibility of an unannounced telephone call or in-person visit by a prevention officer for the purposes of conducting a WorkSafeBC Inspection. While WorkSafeBC’s goal is to assist employers in preventing the transmission of COVID-19, including by providing resources and instruction, officers may issue orders if they identify health and safety violations that require correction.
Local governments employ a variety of workers in numerous diverse worksites, including arenas, parks, fitness facilities, administrative offices, and arts and culture venues. In addition, local government facilities operate to serve the public, posing unique challenges to local governments as they look to protect the many individuals accessing these sites. WorkSafeBC has provided a helpful guide to Municipalities and COVID-19 Safety, which offers broad advice and guidance with respect to controlling the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Ultimately, however, employers are responsible for implementing the appropriate health and safety measures at their workplaces. As such, local governments in British Columbia will need to carefully consider the WorkSafeBC guidelines as well as their own operational requirements and worker input in order to make a unique and individualized assessment of the requisite measures to be incorporated into their COVID-19 Safety Plans.