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COVID-19: What workers should expect when returning to work

Every worker in B.C. has the right to a healthy and safe workplace. Workers have the right to know about the hazards in their workplace, to participate in health and safety activities, and to refuse unsafe work without repercussion.

As businesses look to return to operation following COVID-19–related work stoppages or interruptions, they are expected to develop plans to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19 at the workplace. Below is information on what workers can expect at their workplace during this process.

Work environment

Will all workers be back at the workplace when my employer returns to operation?

Not necessarily. To safely return to operation, an employer’s first consideration will be how many workers need to be on site for any particular shift. This will be part of the plan to maintain physical distancing at the workplace.

Will I be on my regular shift and schedule?

Not necessarily. To safely return to operation, an employer may consider changes to work scheduling and shift arrangements. For example, an employer may stagger start and end times for work shifts to help maintain physical distancing in common areas such as change areas and break rooms. Your employer may also try to schedule certain groups of workers together to limit the number of individuals to whom you are exposed.

Will my employer have rearranged my workplace to support physical distancing as I return to work?

Yes. Your employer must assess the workplace and consider any workplace rearrangements and changes necessary to maintain physical distancing as you come back to work. These workplace changes will likely already incorporate guidance from WorkSafeBC and your industry association. Identifying and developing workplace changes must involve supervisors, key workers, joint occupational health and safety committee members and/or worker representatives who are knowledgeable.

If workplace rearrangements are made in advance, can I still provide feedback on them when I return?

Yes. The initial workplace rearrangements should be a good start when you go back to work, but once work starts, changes may need to be made.

Ongoing input from all workers will be important to improve the initial workplace rearrangements and overall plan. You should provide your feedback to your supervisor / employer / joint health and safety committee or worker representative and help your employer refine the changes that were initially implemented so that the best working arrangements can be determined.

Communication and training

What information should I expect to see in my workplace about managing COVID-19?

You should be provided information on topics such as:

  • COVID-19 symptoms and a reminder not to come to the workplace if you have them
  • Occupancy limits on common areas (lunch rooms, washrooms, changing areas) and specific work areas to ensure appropriate physical distancing
  • How specific tasks in your workplace have been changed to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19
  • Hygiene (e.g., washing hands, coughing or sneezing into your sleeves)

Should I expect training on any new work practices?

Yes. You should be informed of and trained in specific activities and tasks that have been altered as part of your employer’s COVID-19 safety plan. For example, you will need to be aware of limits on the number of people in certain areas of the workplace, and of expectations around cleaning and disinfecting common areas and equipment.

Should we be setting customer expectations to help physical distancing run smoothly?

Yes. Your employer should consider adding signage, floor markings, and other specific direction for customers to ensure that physical distancing between workers and customers is appropriately maintained.

Controlling exposure

Do I have to maintain 2 metres of distance from my co-workers all the time?

Yes, as much as possible.

Your workplace and the activities you regularly undertake should have been rearranged as much as possible to maintain physical distancing of 2 metres.

Your workplace common areas should have been adjusted (either by spacing or indicating occupancy limits) so that physical distancing can be maintained during your breaks.

However, even with all the workplace rearrangements there may still be a few tasks where you may need to be in close proximity to another worker. If these infrequent tasks are short they represent a low risk of potential transmission.

What if I have to work within 2 metres of a co-worker or customer for longer periods?

If you have to be in close proximity with other workers or customers for long periods of time, then you should look further at whether the task can be redesigned, work stations moved apart, or whether barriers should be installed.

What are the expectations for handwashing for workers?

Frequent handwashing should be encouraged during the workday, with appropriate time provided (some relief scheduling for cashiers for instance).

Handwashing will likely need to occur when:

  • Arriving at work
  • Before and after going on a break (especially if using common break rooms)
  • Periodically throughout the day, especially if interfacing with customers
  • After handling delivery documents, packages, boxes, bags
  • As you leave work

You may see new signage in your workplace about handwashing expectations.

What should I expect for cleaning of my workplace?

Appropriate protocols will need to be put into place for cleaning and disinfecting:

  • Common surfaces (tables, counters, desks)
  • Commonly touched items (light switches, door handles, soap dispensers, stair-rails, guardrails, ladders, equipment levers, buttons and hand holds)
  • Any shared equipment and tools

What should I expect for cleaning of common worker areas and shared surfaces, equipment, and tools?

See WorkSafeBC's COVID-19 health and safety: Cleaning and disinfecting for information that should address most workplace cleaning concerns. Generally, you should expect that:

  • All common areas are cleaned after peak periods, such as break times or lunchtime, and disinfected at least once a day at minimum.
  • Commonly touched surfaces, such as light switches, door handles, buttons, etc., are wiped down periodically during the shift and disinfected once per day.
  • Commonly touched parts of shared equipment (e.g., steering wheels, levers, handles, and other touched surfaces on vehicles, forklifts, carts, step ladders, etc.) are cleaned periodically during the day and disinfected once a day if used.

Do I need to wear a homemade or cloth mask at work?

With the exception of health care workplaces, the use of masks is not a requirement for most workplaces to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

In general, masks and other personal protective equipment should not be used as the only control measure. Protocols that offer the highest level of protection should be used first and other protocols added as required, in this order:

  1. First level protection (elimination): Use policies and procedures to keep people at a safe physical distance from one another. Limit the number of people in your workplace at any one time, and implement protocols to keep workers at least 2 metres from other workers, customers, and members of the public.
  2. Second level protection (engineering controls): If you can’t always maintain physical distancing, install barriers such as plexiglass to separate people.
  3. Third level protection (administrative controls): Establish rules and guidelines, such as cleaning protocols, telling workers to not share tools, or implementing one-way doors or walkways.
  4. Fourth level protection (PPE): If the first three levels of protection aren’t enough to control the risks, supply workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as non-medical masks. PPE should not be used as the only control measure. It should only be used in combination with other measures.

Please see WorkSafeBC's COVID-19 health and safety: Selecting and using masks to learn more.

Illness in the workplace

If I feel sick should I go to work?

No. A key measure to protect all workers in the workplace and limit the spread of COVID-19 is to ensure that any worker possibly feeling sick from possibly COVID-19 would remain appropriately isolated at home. In fact, your employer can require you to stay home if you feel sick with COVID-19 like symptoms.

If someone begins to feel ill while at work and displays possible COVID-19 symptoms what should I do?

Report to your supervisor that you are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace and you believe that an individual is displaying symptoms.

Your employer should have policies in place to quickly isolate the individual; briefly ask who they have been working closely with, in which areas of the workplace and with which equipment; then send them home. The employer will then send any identified close contacts home and clean and disinfect areas where the individual was working and any equipment or tools used.

If one of my co-workers felt sick and is now at home when is it safe for them to come back to work?

Any worker who exhibits possible symptoms of COVID-19 and was sent home will need to follow the self-isolation guidance contained within the online BC COVID-19 Symptom Self-Assessment Tool and any guidance or instructions from their medical doctor or public health, as applicable.

How will the employer ensure only healthy workers will be on site?

Your employer should make sure workers understand the symptoms of COVID-19 and that someone with those symptoms should not be in the workplace.

You may see signage at workplace entrances or in general workplace areas reminding everyone of these signs and symptoms and to stay home if they are sick.

It is also important to remember that workers have a responsibility and duty to report if they are feeling unwell and protect the health and well-being of all by going home and staying at home as appropriate.

Resolving concerns about unsafe work

How do I exercise my right to refuse unsafe work?

Workers have the right to refuse work if they believe it presents an undue hazard.

An undue hazard is an “unwarranted, inappropriate, excessive, or disproportionate” hazard. For COVID-19, an “undue hazard” would be one where a worker’s job role places them at increased risk of exposure and adequate controls are not in place to protect them from that exposure.

In these circumstances, the worker should follow steps within their workplace to resolve the issue. The worker would begin by reporting the undue hazard to their employer for investigation and the employer would then need to consider the refusal.

If the matter is not resolved, the worker and the supervisor or employer must contact WorkSafeBC. Once that occurs, a prevention officer will consult with workplace parties to determine whether there is an undue hazard and issue orders if necessary.

For more information, see Occupational Health and Safety Guideline G3.12.