SAFETY FIRST: Covid-19 and the General Duty clause

by Lori Shepherd
Lori Shepherd
Lori Shepherd is a Community Coordinator at Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS). She helps businesses navigate the health and safety challenges of Covid-19.

Canadian occupational health and safety legislation requires employers and supervisors to take “every precaution reasonable” in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. This is known as the general duty clause. It’s a way of protecting workers in a situation where no specific regulation or standard applies. But what does it mean in an uncertain period such as during a pandemic?

Simply put, it means applying the same risk management strategies to this hazard as you would to any other hazard. The following eight suggestions can help workplaces put this into practice.

1. Identify and assess Covid-related hazards that may be present in your workplace. We know the risk of contracting Covid-19 through close, prolonged personal contact can be very high. What processes, procedures and tasks could put employees at risk? How many people could be exposed to the virus, and how likely are they to become infected? Have any Covid-related changes implemented by your workplace introduced new hazards?

2. Determine how best to control the hazards. Once you know the nature and extent of risk, explore control options. Apply the hierarchy of controls, starting with elimination. For hazards that can’t be eliminated, determine how to control them. For instance:

  • Establish a visitor screening protocol. Identify who qualifies as an essential visitor. Advise prospective visitors that their visits must be scheduled, and send screening instructions in advance. Minimize contact on site by implementing touchless check-in or sign-in.
  • Employ signage and markings to promote physical distancing.
  • Install transparent barriers where employees are in close proximity to each other and to visitors.
  • Move workstations so workers are at least two metres apart in all directions and don’t face each another.
  • Stagger shifts and breaks. If your workplace usually operates one or two shifts, consider two or three.
  • Eliminate two-person lifts. Reduce the weight and/or size of materials, investigate alternative packaging such as drums or bins instead of pails or bags, and provide mechanical means to move materials.
  • Increase ventilation.
  • Encourage workers to clean and disinfect their equipment and tools, especially at the beginning and end of shifts.
  • If masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) are called for, ensure they protect against Covid-19.

3. Develop a Covid-19 safety plan. Compile all of the control methods necessary to protect workers from exposure to the virus. Include the steps to take in response to a suspected case. Involve health and safety committee, and complement internal expertise with external expertise where needed. Once you have drafted a plan, discuss it with everyone at work.

4. Integrate local public health requirements for workplaces into your safety plan. Examples include wearing a mask or face covering, physically distancing at least two metres apart, using proper hand hygiene, self-assessing for Covid-19 symptoms before entering the workplace, and staying home when feeling ill.

5. Document everything you do hazard assessments, controls, training, inspections, investigations, logs, checklists, visitor screening and contact tracing records so that if the need arises you can demonstrate due diligence, i.e. that you have taken every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect your workers from Covid-19.

6. Regularly review and update your Covid-19 hazard assessments and controls. Several factors may prompt the need for a review:

• significant changes or improvements to processes or tasks

• evolving information on Covid-19 and related hazards

• changes to public health and other government requirements.

Look for gaps and opportunities for improvement. If controls aren’t working, ask why. Involve workers and worker representatives. Communicate changes to all employees.

7. Reinforce everyone’s role under the Internal Responsibility System. This is another staple of occupational health and safety legislation. Under the system, everyone in the workplace – employers, supervisors and workers – is responsible for their own safety and the safety of co-workers, and has specific roles and responsibilities.

8. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Focus on controlling hazards, not just on compliance. Legislation and regulations set minimum performance requirements, which cannot guarantee a safe workplace. If you focus on compliance as a minimum, rather than on taking every precaution reasonable, you may not be managing hazards effectively.