Office workers in meeting. (Pxhere)

VIDEO: A look at how Canadian workplaces can prepare for a coronavirus outbreak

Health officials in Canada have repeatedly stressed that the risk to public health remains low

Companies wary of what an infectious outbreak could do to their workforce and bottom line are revisiting contingency plans as the new coronavirus continues to spread.

Marie-Helene Primeau of the Montreal-based risk management company Premier Continuum says she’s spent recent days fielding questions from several firms seeking guidance on what to do if the rapidly spreading illness that originated in China threatens the health of employees and customers.

“Everyone’s looking at their state of readiness,” says Primeau, whose company provides training and advice to a range of firms including banks, insurance companies, government agencies and those in manufacturing.

“They’re actively revisiting the plans, but they’re not necessarily stockpiling masks.”

Health officials in Canada have repeatedly stressed that the risk to public health remains low. Seven cases have been identified in Canada, while worldwide, the illness known as 2019-nCoV has sickened more than 37,000 people and killed more than 800, nearly all in China.

Nevertheless, Canadians are being urged to remain vigilant against infection, with medical experts reminding the public we’re still in the throes of flu season and that good hygiene is advised — wash hands frequently, cough and sneeze into tissue or your upper sleeve, and don’t touch your face.

Disaster management expert Amin Mawani says workers and managers alike should take this time to combat misinformation, repeat hygiene tips, be clear on sick leave policies and prepare for the possibility of mass absenteeism.

If an outbreak hits, employers should encourage unwell workers to stay home, Mawani says, but a key step to mitigating an outbreak’s impact is to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

“You can’t buy traditional insurance in a sense, but you can prepare for it by spending some money planning for it and stockpiling certain things — masks and whatever else you might need,” says Mawani, academic director of the health industry management program at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

A possible outbreak has critics refocused on provincial sick day allowances in Ontario, where the Progressive Conservative government offers most workers three days of unpaid leave each year and allows bosses to demand a doctor’s note.

Health-care workers say that can make it hard for some to stay home when necessary, and if sick people work in high-risk settings — such as food services, long-term care facilities or childcare spaces — the impact can be significant.

“A lack of paid sick days results in children and adults transmitting infections at school and work, exacerbating contagion throughout the province,” the group Decent Work and Health Network warn in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford.

Mawani agreed employers should consider whether they’re prepared to ease sick day restrictions if the virus strikes staff, noting hardline policies also threaten morale and loyalty.

Workers should also consider coming up with their own protective measures, he adds.

“In some ways employees can take the initiative, they can say: ‘Look, I can easily do this at home,’ or ‘I can do this on the weekend. Why do I need to come in tomorrow?’” he says.

“And employers should be willing to listen during this phase so even if (workers) don’t start working from home now (the company) can have plans ready.”

John Yamniuk of the Toronto-based consulting firm DRI Canada says there are ways to limit person-to-person infection at the office, even those with open layouts, communal spaces, and shoulder-to-shoulder computer stations: Is there room to leave a vacant spot between workers? Is there an unused meeting room that can be transformed into an alternate work space?

“If you’re in a call centre environment, (think about) providing extra cleaning services, providing individual headsets for folks so they’re not sharing keyboards or things like that,” adds Yamniuk, based in Calgary.

Primeau’s advice includes making sure contact information for staff and partners are up-to-date.

She also encourages managers to run through “a tabletop exercise” — in which each person discusses their role during an emergency and all agree on how best to respond to various scenarios.

And don’t assume you can just rely on a temp agency if a lot of people call in sick, she adds, because you can’t guarantee availability or loyalty.

“Temporary backup was something that was brought up when we were talking about the (H1N1) pandemic 10 years ago but the thing is that those individuals will also be sick as well,” she says.

“It’s more (about) focusing on what’s key. What’s urgent to perform? What are the critical activities, rather than calling upon a temp.”

READ MORE: Canada ready to offer more help to China amid coronavirus outbreak

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Illegal fishing, snowmobiling caught in Caribou-protected areas of northern B.C.

Closures are to support the recovery of caribou herds: BC Conservation Officer Service

Bailey’s celebrating 100 years of farming in B.C.

Vanderhoof farm received the Century Farm Award awarded by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs call for end of police patrols

Temporary closure of field office not enough to meet demands

Alice in Wonderland Jr. coming to Vanderhoof this March

W.L. McLeod Elementary presents its 12th production

Mainly sunny Saturday, but cloudy weather in the forecast

Environment Canada weather report for the week of Feb. 24

Protecting privacy key to stopping spread of COVID-19, B.C. health officials say

The number of coronavirus cases in B.C. remains at seven

Private clinics would harm ‘ordinary’ people using public system in B.C.: lawyer

Health Minister Adrian Dix announced in 2018 that the government would begin to fine doctors $10,000

B.C. terminates contract with hospice society refusing assisted death

Delta Hospice Society loses hospital service fund of $1.5 million

Child in hospital following fatal crash that killed father, sibling on B.C. highway

The single vehicle crash occured near Kamloops on Highway 5A

‘Die!’: Vernon councillor mailed death threat

This story contains information that might be sensitive to some readers

Hidden message connects Castlegar homeowners decades apart

The Rodgers family was surprised when a message fell out of the walls as they were renovating

Two B.C. men plead guilty to bus-terminal assault of man with autism in Ontario

Parmvir Chahil and Jaspaul Uppal due to be sentenced in June for aggravated assault

B.C. Liberals call for assistance on soaring strata insurance rates

NDP’s Carole James says problem is across the country

Most Read