We have been hearing a lot from our home support members who have questions about how COVID-19 affects their work and about their personal safety. We hope the following will answer some of those questions.

The Precautionary Principle
Knowledge about how the virus is transmitted has yet to be fully understood. For this reason, CUPE is recommending that health care settings adopt the precautionary principle towards infection prevention and control of COVID-19. The precautionary principle means taking action to prevent infection from potentially serious viruses without having to wait for complete scientific proof that a course of action is necessary. While there is continued uncertainty that the virus is not spread through the air, we must conduct ourselves as if it were.

How is the Virus Spread?
The prevailing consensus among health agencies including the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is that the virus is spread primarily through close contact (within two metres) with an infected person through respiratory droplets generated when a person, for example, coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose.

There remains no consensus if COVID-19 is transmitted by small droplets suspended in the air or through procedures that generate aerosols (e.g open suctioning). As such, CUPE is recommending that workers and employers treat COVID-19 as an airborne transmitted disease.

What is the Incubation Period?
The prevailing consensus is that time between infection and the onset of clinical symptoms of the disease is 1 -12 days. Coronaviruses have incubation periods that can last up to 14 days. As such, CUPE recommends that health care settings adopt a more conservative incubation period of greater than 14 days without symptoms.

Can the Virus be Spread by a Person with no Symptoms of the Disease (Asymptomatic)?
There is no consensus that an asymptomatic person can not transmit the disease during the incubation period. In rare cases, transmission of the virus has occurred from an asymptomatic person. For this reason, CUPE is recommending that health care settings adopt the precautionary principle until it is fully understood how the virus is transmitted.

This means that members of a community who have had contact from a person who has developed COVID-19 but has not shown symptoms, should be treated as if they carry the virus.

Advice to CUPE Locals:

  • Request the employer’s plan for COVID-19/infectious diseases (existing plan or new plan)
  • Request training records (PPE fit tests, routine practices and additional precautions, proper use of equipment)
  • Request employer’s plan if a client is infected
  • Request an update on your employer’s stockpile of PPE (What is the supply level? Is the supplier capable of providing stock in case of a spike in cases?)
  • Staffing (what are plans for staffing during an outbreak, call ins, dedicated teams?)
  • How will the employer provide daily updates? Shift reports? Effective safety huddle communication?

The Right to Refuse

CUPE has been receiving many questions from members who want to know how the current COVID-19 pandemic may affect their right to refuse. As a worker in Nova Scotia, you have the legal right to refuse unsafe work, according to Section 43 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, when there are reasonable grounds to believe that the work condition, equipment, material, or any aspect of the work may be dangerous to you or another person’s health and safety.

Here’s how you can refuse unsafe work:

  1. Notify your supervisor or employer at the worksite and state your reason for refusal.
  2. Where the matter is not remedied to the employee’s satisfaction, report it to your workplace health and safety committee or the worker health and safety representative.
  3. If you are not satisfied with the remedy, contact the Department of Labour and Advanced Education to speak with an officer about the refusal.
  4. The officer shall investigate the complaint, and document actions taken in a written report. A copy of the report must be provided to you.
  5. If you are not satisfied, you may appeal the report within 30 days, and request a review by the Labour Board.

You cannot be threatened or discriminated against through dismissal, reprimand or reduction of either wages or benefits for complying with the legislation, according to Section 45 of the Act.

How does COVID-19 effect the potential that an aspect of the work may be dangerous to the workers’ health and safety?

For employees who are not working with people who are ill or showing symptoms of illness (such as fever and a cough) COVID-19 is not a significant risk to a worker. While the risk to public health remains high, the risk to the health and safety of individual workers is not significantly impacted at this time. The ability to evoke your right to refuse is individual and based on your own assessment of the risk. Consider factors such as ability to maintain hand hygiene and a safe distance from anyone who is exhibiting symptoms.

How does COVID-19 affect the potential that an aspect of the work may be dangerous to the workers’ health and safety when working with people who are infected or showing symptoms of illness?

If you work in health care or any sector that brings you into contact with individuals who are ill or suspected to be ill, ensure you are familiar with your employer’s infection prevention and control procedures. If you lack the training, staffing levels, or personal protective equipment they call for to perform the tasks you have been assigned, please take those factors into consideration when evaluating the risks. As always, the determination that a situation is dangerous is an individual one and the role of your union is to ensure members are aware of their rights and the processes to follow.

It is also important to remember that the efforts to enhance health and safety in your workplace are always ongoing, and any situation that can affect the health and safety of any person in the workplace should be reported immediately to a supervisor.