The Dose

How can I safely return to work during the pandemic?

COVID-19 put millions of Canadians out of work and sent millions of others home to work from kitchen tables and sofas. Here’s how to navigate a return to in-person work as safely as possible.

From the commute to chats at the water cooler, there are ways to minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19

At Leith Wheeler Investment Counsel in Vancouver, receptionist Tanja Bakic works behind a newly installed plexiglass barrier. Experts say employers need to ensure work spaces are in compliance with provincial and federal guidelines on COVID-19 before allowing employees to return. (Submitted by Leith Wheeler)

COVID-19 put millions of Canadians out of work and sent millions of others home to work from kitchen tables and sofas.

Staying healthy as work resumes for some and others leave their homes for more formal work settings is going to require employees to not only strictly adhere to preventative measures — like hand hygiene and physical distancing — but to know their rights, say experts in infectious disease and occupational health and safety law.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said it's also important to note that risk doesn't always lie exactly where we think it does.

Looking at data from Sweden, which had no shutdown from the novel coronavirus but does have robust data-tracking, teachers "had essentially identical risk to the average community-based person," she told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC podcast The Dose. By contrast, pizza makers had four times the average risk.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger is an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta. (University of Alberta)

While labour law falls under provincial jurisdiction and varies depending on where you live, there are some basic expectations all Canadians can have of their employers, said health and safety lawyer Katherine Lippel, a University of Ottawa professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in occupational health and safety law.

"The overarching legislation — and this is true everywhere in Canada — is that the employers are legally obliged to provide a safe workplace. There's the general duty of employers to ensure the physical and, in most provinces, psychological health of their workers," Lippel said.

Here's what Lippel, Saxinger and others had to say about how to navigate a return to in-person work as safely as possible.

To stay or go?

If you're fortunate enough to have a choice about where you do your work, the decision to return or remain working remotely depends on such factors as your personal risk for COVID-19 complications, as well as that of the people in your bubble; your caregiving responsibilities at home; how crowded your work environment is; and whether your home life is conducive to getting work done.

Kathy Enros, who heads up human resources at Klue, a small software start-up in Vancouver, said the company decided to allow staffers to continue to work at home in part because their Gastown offices are too small to allow for proper physical distancing.

But not everyone wants to continue working from home. "There're some extroverts who really like the people contact and so, if they're living alone, were feeling quite isolated," Enros said.

"Then you layer on that a lot of these folks are living in very small living quarters ... and they don't have the luxury of a separate space to go and work."

As for determining if your work environment is safe, Lippel recommends that returning employees go to the website for the Ministry of Labour in their province or territory and look up specific COVID-19 regulations outlined for their field. 

"Say you're working at a retail facility in Quebec, you should be provided with a mask by your employer. And say you're a cashier, you should be provided with plexiglass protection. Each job requires different protections," she said.

If you're a member of a union, Lippel said, get in touch to find out what it's learned about how safety measures are being implemented and what you can expect. 

Katherine Lippel, a workplace health and safety law expert at the University of Ottawa, says workers have a right to a safe work environment that's in compliance with the COVID requirements of their province or territory. (Submitted by Katherine Lippel )

If you've got underlying conditions that make you vulnerable to COVID-19, that may be covered by human rights law as a disability that must be accommodated, she said.

Take the example of a person with diabetes working in a long-term care home. "I would expect that my employer would provide me with reasonable accommodation to avoid exposing me to the patients who are suffering from COVID," Lippel said. That might mean working in the kitchen or another part of the organization where contact with others is minimized.

Getting there on public transit

Many people have expressed fear about exposure to COVID-19 on public transit. Ridership numbers on transit systems, including the Toronto Transit Commission, remain down even as restrictions are lifted — a good indication that public confidence in their safety is low. 

Yet Saxinger said she knows of only one super-spreading event tied to a bus, and it was on an air-conditioned coach bus taking a group to an event, not a standard transit bus that's likely less airtight.

A study of people quarantined in hospital for 14 days after exposure to COVID-19 found that the risk of getting the illness was only one per cent in public transit settings but 10 per cent in households, she said.

A woman is seen wearing a mask while riding a subway in Toronto. Saxinger said public transit may not be as risky as people fear. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But some employers have made support available to help staff who don't feel comfortable taking public transit to work.

At Leith Wheeler, an investment firm with offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, the company started paying for parking for employees who have chosen to return to the office but who don't feel comfortable with their normal transit commute, said James Goodchild, the firm's chief technology officer and chief information security officer, whose duties include pandemic preparedness.

Physical distancing

Spreading people out at Leith Wheeler offices has been helped along by the decision to allow employees to continue working from home if they prefer, he said.  

Still, the firm decided to create sneeze barriers anyway. "We got heavy-duty vinyl and strapping and hung it between cubicles that face each other, even though they were two metres apart and met the requirements" of WorkSafeBC.

Employers must look at how many people are in the work environment and how much space is between them, Saxinger said. That's at least as critical for people working in close quarters in a meat-packing plant as it is for those who are interacting with members of the public or in open office environments, she said.

Compliance officer Benson Lo works behind a clear barrier constructed from heavy-duty vinyl at the office of Leith Wheeler Investment Counsel in Vancouver. Only those employees who prefer to work in the office are back on site with precautions like these sneeze guards, new hand sanitizing stations and more frequent cleaning in place. (Submitted by Leith Wheeler)

"If you have to have a meeting where everybody is physically present in the room, they should practise good physical distancing, which means that the chairs should be at least two metres apart," she said.

"And you shouldn't have choke points where people have to congregate to get in and out of a door."

Instead, Saxinger said, stagger entry to prevent close contact.

At Klue in Vancouver, employees must sign up to be in the office on a given day and cannot be there at the same time as the person who sits next to or across from them, Enros said.

​​​​​​The air in there

In addition to the number of people in a shared space, employers should also be speaking to building maintenance staff or their landlords for details about ventilation, Saxinger said.

"Some of the things that look like they're important in [preventing COVID spread in] a building environment is the number of air exchanges per hour," she said. "And with pretty much all of these infections, more air exchanges is better and making sure that you're bringing in as much outside air as possible."

Risk is lower in buildings where you can open windows, and in the winter, raising humidity usually helps reduce respiratory virus risk, Saxinger said. 

Hand-washing remains critical to managing spread of COVID-19, and should be central to plans for a safe return to work. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Places to wash hands

Hand hygiene remains a cornerstone of COVID prevention. 

That was top of mind while modifying the offices at Leith Wheeler, Goodchild said.

"We installed disinfecting bottles at every entrance, we put disinfecting wipes through all the common areas. If you touch something, you're expected to wipe it down," he said.

To make shared washrooms safer, Saxinger recommends propping open doors where possible so there's no need to touch the door handle or leaving a waste bin just outside so an employee can use a paper towel to touch the handle and dispose of it easily when they're done.

Elevators versus stairs

There's been a lot of focus on the safety of elevators, Saxinger said, "because they seem so enclosed, you can only really distance in an elevator if there's two or three of you." On top of that, there's the question of how many people have touched the buttons.

A man decides to take the stairs as a sign advises that only one rider at a time is permitted on an elevator due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, July 23 at Boston University in Boston. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press)

But Saxinger said it's also important to keep in mind that it's usually a short ride and therefore a short exposure. "I would [use] hand sanitizer, wear a mask and avoid a crowded elevator if possible."  

Taking the stairs can be a good alternative, as long as they aren't crowded with people "huffing and puffing and coughing up a lung because they're out of shape."

Break rooms and water cooler chats

Data about COVID-19 spread in health-care settings has found that common spaces like break rooms and kitchens may be the riskiest spots in the workplace, Saxinger said. While so much focus was on reducing risk while interacting with patients, it turns out we're "often much better in the more formal situations about remembering all those new habits."

At Klue, Kathy Enros said all shared kitchen tools have been removed. At Leith Wheeler, "equipment that required a lot of touching like fancy coffee machines, put into storage, and signage was placed informing employees of the maximum number of people allowed in the room," Goodchild said. 

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Local public health guidance will provide direction on whether masks are required in your work environment, but where it's optional, consider your ability to distance from others, Saxinger said.

"For example, if you're sitting in your own office and occasionally people might come up to your door, I think that wearing a mask doesn't make sense." The same applies if you're always more than two metres away from others in a cubicle or on an assembly line, she said.

"If you're going to be entering a more shared airspace, having a mask on would be the great fallback position."

Written by Brandie Weikle. Lynora Saxinger interview produced by Dawna Dingwall and Sujata Berry.


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