Returning to work and worried about catching COVID? You’re not alone

How the provinces move lift most COVID-19 restrictions and Mask Obligationsmany employees are returning to the workplace – whether they like it or not.

and an Angus Reid/CBC poll conducted in March suggests that many do not. More than half of respondents (56 percent) said they would look for another job if asked to return to the office, with nearly a quarter (23 percent) saying they would quit immediately.

Work-life balance aside, some are simply concerned about exposure to COVID-19 by being indoors that may not be adequately ventilated and that no longer require masks or vaccinations.

“You’re now sitting side by side with people who aren’t wearing masks, who are unsure about their vaccination status, who are now traveling daily on the GO train or the subway,” said Mark Kozicki, a senior manager at a financial institution in Toronto.

The federal government also wants to stick to the hybrid model for parliament because of COVID.

“This pandemic continues, as does the need to be flexible,” House Speaker Mark Holland said.

But not everyone has this opportunity. What now?

Doctors recommend workers wear a mask if they have to work indoors with insufficient ventilation. (Maggie McPherson/CBC)

Is it safe to return to work?

“If you have a return-to-work policy, you’re going to have an increase in cases,” said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at McGill University Health Center.

But whether a workplace is “safe” depends on whether you’re working in a private or open space and whether there is adequate ventilation.

“Quite simply,” Vinh said, “the only thing you can control is your vaccination status and your masking.”

CLOCK | Back to the office versus home office:

How workplaces deal with the return-to-office dilemma

Ian Hanomansing speaks with Klaryssa Pangilinan, Head of People and Culture at Daily Hive, and Erin Bury, Co-Founder and CEO of Willful, about how their workplaces are dealing with the complicated decision to allow employees to return to the office.

Kozicki, who has been working from home during the pandemic, recently returned to his office three days a week. But it was a different place. He’s in a smaller workspace with fewer individual offices and more people sitting closer together, often face-to-face, with no barriers between them.

It’s the “precise opposite of what we’ve been told for the past two years,” he said — a “very narrow group” of people who may be infected with COVID, who may be spreading it, or who may not be protecting themselves.

Vinh says while distancing is still important to limit COVID transmission, ventilation is even more important.

“The problem,” he said, “is that there hasn’t been much effort to improve ventilation across the country.”

He says open windows when the weather is nice, if possible. Try not to meet in small rooms with the door closed, and ask your employer about portable air-cleaning devices.

Any workplace that doesn’t have “hospital-level” ventilation must consider asking people to wear masks indoors. That means an N95 or equivalent.

The ventilation system of a building within the ceiling.
One doctor says any workplace without “hospital-level” ventilation should provide adequate masks for its employees. (CBC)

Can I refuse to return to the office if I feel unsafe?

“Probably there isn’t much room for an employee to flatly refuse to return to the workplace,” said Ryan Macklon, a Vancouver labor and human rights attorney.

But there are exceptions – say, when the employee has a valid medical reason not to be vaccinated.

“Then it’s probably the case that the employer has to offer accommodation,” Macklon said.

This could include continuing to work from home, rotating days in the office so the space is less crowded, allowing employees to rotate jobs to ensure proper distancing, or moving to a quieter corner with less traffic and draw less personal interaction.

Should I worry about going back if I’m not vaccinated?

That’s easy, according to Vinh. Anything less than three vaccine doses at this point would put a person at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“If you don’t get at least three doses, or three doses plus one or two booster shots, you’re not fully vaccinated, depending on your comorbidity and a number of other factors,” he said. “And so, yes, you should be concerned.”

I am fully vaccinated but my unvaccinated colleagues are back too. Are you putting me in danger?

Not really, because while the vaccines were initially effective at preventing serious illness and transmission, with Omicron they became less effective at preventing symptomatic infections, according to Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“So if the people sitting next to you, vaccinated with one dose, two doses, three doses, have recovered from COVID, they all face the same relative risk of having COVID or having protection from symptomatic infection. ‘ he told CBC Radio Ontario today on Monday.

Some workplaces have explored creating separate spaces for vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees.

But Chagla says imposing mask mandates would likely do more to reduce transmission.

Separating people by vaccination status is “not very effective and can really cause a lot of harm and inconvenience,” he said.

Do I need to worry about sharing workspaces?

Not so much in terms of contracting COVID-19, which is mainly airborne. However, disinfecting surfaces such as computer stations or telephones will help limit the transmission of other diseases, such as the common cold or flu.

A workspace with a computer monitor, keyboard, telephone and television.
Sharing a workplace doesn’t necessarily increase a person’s risk of catching COVID, but not sanitizing could increase the risk of catching a cold or flu. (Jean Claude Taliana/CBC)

What options do I have if I get sick because I had to go to work?

According to Macklon, not much.

“Generally speaking, can I sue my company for catching COVID at work? We’ll probably go with no,” he said. “We I haven’t seen any recent cases where an employer has been held liable for an employee’s illness at work.”

CLOCK | Getting sick from work:

Growing concerns about COVID-related deaths and injuries in the workplace

As more companies recall workers on site, there are concerns it could lead to a spike in workplace deaths and injuries related to COVID-19. Advocates want to ensure employers take appropriate steps to reduce exposure risks in the workplace.

Vinh says employers should want to keep their workers healthy.

“If their workforce gets sick and has to be absent from work, then that’s actually less productive than even working from home,” he said.

Are employers responsible for preventing harassment or bullying related to masking?

According to Macklon, employers in each province are subject to workplace safety laws and must provide a safe space “free from bullying and harassment.” He says most large employers likely have policies that should be broad enough to include any harassment issues related to masking.

The Angus Reid Institute surveyed 2,550 adult members of the Angus Reid Forum online March 1-4, 2022. A probability sample of this size would have a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 out of 20. The survey was conducted in partnership with CBC.

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