You can’t check your phone these days without seeing a new story about the rapidly-spreading Coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared the outbreak of the virus a Public Health Emergency, and as of February 3, 2020, there were 4 confirmed cases of the virus in Canada, 3 of which are in Ontario. You may be wondering – as an employer, what are your responsibilities for keeping your workplace safe and your employees healthy? What do you need to know about the virus and where can you get reliable information?
Keep in mind that right now you are reading an article from your lawyer and not from a health professional – the best, most reliable information on the virus itself will come from public health authorities like Public Health Ontario, the World Health Organization, Health Canada, and the Ontario Ministry of Health. Remind your employees to check these sources regularly for trustworthy information and updates.
What is the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)?p
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that originate in animals but are known to cause respiratory illness in humans; Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or ‘SARS’, is a coronavirus which hit Ontario hard in 2003. The 2019-nCoV virus is “novel” or new, meaning it had not been detected in animals or humans prior to December 2019.
Like other respiratory illnesses, the Coronavirus can cause mild symptoms including a runny nose, sore throat, cough, and fever, and may develop into pneumonia in some cases. The virus can be transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets generated when a person, for example, coughs or sneezes. Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as, diabetes and heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus. In rare cases the virus can be deadly. Currently, there is no specific treatment for most people with coronavirus infection, and in most of these cases people will recover on their own. As of February 4, 2020, there is not yet a vaccine for coronavirus.
It’s important to note that currently the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has assessed the public health risk associated with Coronavirus as low for Canada, and the overall risk to Canadians traveling abroad is low. The risk for Canadians travelling to China is high, and the PHAC recommends avoiding all non-essential travel to China; it also recommends avoiding all travel to Hubei Province, China, including Wuhan city. 
An Employer’s Responsibilities
Under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”), an employer is responsible for ensuring the health and safety of their workers; employers must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. This can include provision of information and provision of protective devices (which will likely be relevant if you are in the health care industry).
Keeping your workplace safe during the Coronavirus looks a lot like keeping it safe and clean during regular flu season. Encourage everyone to:
- Wash their hands with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer frequently;
- Cover their mouth with their elbow or a tissue when sneezing or coughing – don’t sneeze or cough into their hands;
- Keep their hands to themselves and away from their eyes, nose and mouth;
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, counters, desks, boardroom tables, computer keyboards, and cell phones;
- Stay home from work if they have a fever; and
- If they have a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and disclose their travel history to medical professionals – especially if they have recently been in the province of Hubei, China.
Now may be a good time to remind your employees of your company’s sick leave policy, including clarification of which circumstances and symptoms will require an employee to stay home from work. You may wish to consider a policy for extended leave (paid or unpaid) or accommodation for any employees who are affected by the coronavirus.
If an employee has recently returned from visiting China, it may be appropriate to confirm whether they have 1) any symptoms associated with the coronavirus, and 2) have been in contact with anyone that is believed or suspected to have symptoms of the coronavirus. In that event, a medical clearance can be requested before the employee returns to work.
Your Employees’ Rights
Under the OHSA, most workers have the right to refuse to work in a workplace they have reason to believe is likely to endanger them. It’s likely that employees will be within their rights to refuse any business-related travel to China – particularly to Hubei Province – while the Canadian government’s travel advisory remains in place. You may encounter employees who refuse to attend work if they know or believe that colleagues have recently been travelling in China. This may trigger your duty to investigate under OHSA, but it also raises potential issues of human rights discrimination if assumptions are made based on employees’ race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, or citizenship. We recommend consulting counsel in the event an employee exercises their right to refuse work.
Consult Minken Employment Lawyers for further information about your obligations as an employer under employment standards, human rights, occupational health and safety, workers compensation and privacy legislation.
 Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1, s. 25.